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MSPnet Blog: “Practice and grit are not enough”

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posted August 1, 2014 – by Brian Drayton

Another week’s blog-haunting has turned up research on a different aspect of learning, a different angle on motivation.  “Grit” and “practice” have been surfacing a lot in recent times as the “keys to success” in education, as opposed to innate ability — the education version of “nature vs nurture.”   And I’ve been very interested by studies which show that American parents tend to think that performance in STEM is a matter of talent, rather than work, while Japanese and German parents tend to think that effort matters most.  But I have to confess some private reservations about the way the emphasis on “grit” and sheer bloody-minded persistence has come to fit into the market-based narrative of our times.  As a biologist, I know that “nature vs nurture” is a false dichotomy. Now a new study of the ingredients of mastery provides some nuance.

Valerie Strauss, in the Answer Sheet, has a guest post by Alfie Kohn reporting on a meta-analysis by Macnamara et al, in Psychological Science (the study is behind another pernicious paywall, but there’s a link to another article about the study).  Kohn’s post is pretty thorough and thoughtful.  Macnamara et al find that across the board, ” the amount of deliberate practice in which someone engages explains only 12 percent of the variance in the quality of performance.”  That’s not very much, though of course it can be a crucial ingredient.  Other factors reported in the literature that make up the other 88 percent include when you started the activity, how collaborative and interactive you are in doing it, and how much you enjoy it. Oh, and talent also can matter (perhaps especially there’s an interaction with the enjoyment part).

But another BIG question that is raised, is: the role of practice vs Everything Else, varies depending on the kind of activity it is.  Once you think about it, it makes sense that ice-skating mastery, theatrical performance mastery, and experimental physics mastery might be very different in this regard.  The relative contributions of all the various ingredients of mastery (whatever that means as a general term) may vary rather a lot from one kind of activity to another.

So once again, “nature,” and  “nurture,” and “culture,”  and “circumstance.”

(I note that a lot of this was thought through in pretty interesting terms (including the psychological elements) by Dewey, in his short monograph “Interest and Effort in Education,” which can be found free for Kindle, as well as in other venues.)

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Engagement and interest

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 8/2/2014 9:42 am

When you consider the Everything Else of nature and nurture, culture, and circumstance isnt that what forms interest. How you build the engage is critical to where one is in that everything else in their lives. This especially obvious in the outcomes of traditional tests as they deal to a great extent with words, yet increasing visuals and infograms. So while ice skating, theater and physics mastery MAY have very different languages involved, gaining and sustaining interest that flows into a supporting structure of demonstrated abilities is what they have in common.
Retooling education to support that interest to communicate within a global culture is the current challenge. We cant point to the same continuum of history of the trails and tracks as they are so varied however the human nature to engage and become interested remains.