The Key to Success: Deliberate Practice or our Genes?

Wayne Rooney, aged 16, scoring an iconic goal against Arsenal. Genius derived from genes? Or does practice make perfect?

Most young boys grow up in Liverpool playing football and little else. I fulfilled the stereotype with aplomb. I’d play football in shop doorways, braving passing buses, or, more safely, in local parks with the proverbial jumpers for goalposts. In my early school life most lessons were considered as annoying intervals between games of football on the school yard.

I received some good quality coaching and I committed thousands of hours of practice by any unofficial measure. My commitment and determination was beyond question. So why the hell did I not become an Everton Football Club Legend? Why did I not become an expert?

Does the right type of practice matter most, or are our genes our destiny?

Of course, we know instinctively that practice, even thousands of hours of high quality ‘deliberate practice’ (see my article on ‘deliberate practice for teachers here) doesn’t confer greatness on us all, sadly. If it did, we would be reaching a measure of a ‘super-race’, with us all living life like some hyperactive Nike advert.

The reasons for my lifting a pen and not kicking a ball are legion. Predetermined genes, and genetic dispositions, play an obvious part. Also, there are environmental factors, such as family roles models, school experience, teachers as well as a huge array of psychological and motivational factors.

So why did Wayne Rooney, from my childhood school and neighbourhood, rise to the top of the sport? His childhood was similarly jammed with committed hours of practice. He had access to similar facilities and role model coaches. Was it the chance of being picked out as a young boy, at exactly the right time in his development, for the expert coaching of professionals? Was it the strong heritable factors taken from a sports mad family – his so called ‘natural talent’? Was it the determined motivation of a boy wanting to best all those around him in the one way he knew how?

Finding out the answer to what confers expertise and success is a veritable ‘Rosetta stone’ for us all. Just as interesting for me as a teacher is the question of how I can become a better teacher and, even more importantly, what can I learn about the development of skill and expertise to help my students become a success.

I have spent some time looking for the answers.

The excellent research work of Anders Ericsson (see here) is the definitive work about ‘deliberate practice’. It has been popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Outliers’ (which simplified Ericsson’s extensive research down to the short-hand that 10,000 hours of practice was essential to expertise), by Daniel Coyle in ‘The Talent Code’, by Matthew Syed in ‘Bounce’ and ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin etc. The narrative about ‘deliberate practice’ has been seized upon with particular fervour by people working in education, including myself. Much of the narrative is more simply about the transformative power of well guided hard work.

This belief, that with enough effort, and with targeted support, we can transcend the limitations of our environment, is noble and it bursts with hope for teachers and students everywhere.

I have therefore celebrated the notion of ‘deliberate practice’. It fits with my personal experience and it also syncs well with cognitive science research about how expertise develops. However, all is not well! A recent meta-analysis of the impact of ‘deliberate practice’ – see here – has brought into question its supposedly transformative powers. For a teacher seeking to get better, to hear that ‘deliberate practice’ has about a 1% impact on professionals is damning and disheartening.

With a little further digging you can bring the meta-analysis findings into question. The synthesis regarding professional expertise includes little more than a paper on refereeing, a doctoral thesis on programming, a paper on pilot decision-making and a paper on insurance agents. Hardly conclusive evidence of professional practice!

The patently positive impact of practice is hardly drawn into question by such evidence, but there is a pendulum swing of opinion that has placed genes and heritability back at the forefront of the debate about expertise.

The excellent ‘Sports Gene’, by David Epstein, reveals that heritability, as you would expect, has a huge impact upon sporting success and general expertise in many given fields. The focus on genetic heritability is mirrored in Asbury and Plomin’s ‘G for Genes’. They show how important genes are to cognitive intelligence – clearly, so important for all of our students – through researching the development of lots and lots of twins and more.

People like Alfie Kohn, famed American educationalist, have seized upon the debate and particularly the criticisms of ‘deliberate practice’. He has written an article attacking the ‘practice makes perfect‘ cliche, so cogently argued by the likes of a Doug Lemov, with his own particular ideological slant – see here. He is implicitly critical of KIPP schools and the like in America, whose mantra, ‘work hard, be nice‘, has sought to galvanise an advocacy for practice being the path toward expertise and a key to breaking out of the chains of poverty and social inequality. The problem with Kohn is that he seeks to make political points rather than explore the argument fully, when I simply want to work out what works.

Common sense dictates that ‘deliberate practice’ is not the sole factor that determines expertise. It may well be that it has a significantly smaller impact on determining expertise than genetic predispositions. However, as it is something we can have agency and control over as teachers, with our personal improvement, and that of our malleable students, we should persevere with ‘deliberate practice’. The many attendant benefits of disciplined practice are obvious.

Unsurprisingly, the dichotomy of ‘deliberate practice’ and genes is a false one. There is really interesting research to show that genetic predispositions are only activated in certain environments. Famously, London taxi drivers, who study ‘the knowledge’ (the spatial mapping of streets in London) develop more grey matter when it comes to spatial awareness. Professional keyboard players develop more grey matter for the auditory, visual-spatial and motor areas of their brains in comparison with their amateur counter-parts.

The brain has a wonderful plasticity which means that our genes are not our destiny. This plasticity is clearly sensitive to the impact of ‘deliberate practice’. For that reason, with as much balanced evidence as I can muster, I will continue to base my teaching and learning around the evidence that attends ‘deliberate practice’, with a sensitive awareness of the impact of heritability.

So the answers to growing expertise isn’t simply ‘deliberate practice’, nor is it the impact of our genes. It is an infinitely complex interplay between the two that we should seek to explore and understand.

21 thoughts on “The Key to Success: Deliberate Practice or our Genes?”

  1. Fascinating post, Alex. Couple of points: there’s a difference between becoming very good at something–becoming good enough to be a successful professional–and becoming Wayne Rooney- whose performance places him in the top .001 percent of footballers. For a footballer to be truly elite, especially in a field where millions and millions of people seek a tiny number of places, he will need both genes AND practice and, as i think epstein’s book shows, as the competition becomes fiercer and fiercer, the biological part becomes more and more critical as a differentiater. So seeking to be a great teacher and seeking to start up top for the Toffees are different endeavors. Can you become a very very good teacher with a lot of deliberate practice? yes, i think. is it the best way to get better? yes, i think. Are there still probably some people who are naturals? Sure. but for the rest of us and for a society that needs millions of teachers, the results of practice are remarkable. and we don’t need one teacher who is better than every other teacher in,say, the city of Liverpool to succeed. We need thousands of very good teachers from liverpool. and if you are willing to practice your teaching half as much as you practiced your footy, we ought to be able to make you very very successful. further if there’s a genetic effect in determining teaching excellence it’s probably far less smaller that the effect in sports because of the far more limited role of physiology–ie the length of your legs and the percentage of fast twitch muscles etc. the mind, or course, is far more plastic than the body and people change their fundamental thinking and behavior patterns all the time. Well, except maybe Alfie Kohn.

    1. Yes – I completely agree. I have conflated sports and the profession rather as a way to draw attention, but also because much of the discourse does so, such as the DP a meta-analysis I critique. I hope people note the obvious differences.

      I wholly believe that great teachers are made and not born. With at simple truth, we need to find the thousand marginal gains that make the difference.

      I was disappointed by Alfie Kohn’s article. I felt he ignored the evidence to score some political points.

  2. I don’t see that genetic disposition and practice can’t go hand in hand. Yes, there are people with natural talents but unless they deliberately practise those talents, they will not get any better and may well be overtaken by those by those with less natural aptitude who have worked to improve. Had Rooney not spent those hours practising, he would have been overlooked for someone like yourself who had spent hours improving their skills.
    As teachers, we have to believe that all children can improve, whatever their starting point. Deliberate practice has got to be the key to that improvement. The issue for me and some of my children is that they don’t believe that they will improve and therefore there is no point in making the effort. Examples such as the hours put in by Rooney and other people who achieve excellence is one way of trying to overcome their mindset.

    1. I think that exceptional ‘talent’ like Rooney is used for the gene debate, when actually, as you and Doug Lemov describe, they are outliers and that deliberate practice is surely good for us all.

  3. This is a very timely post Alex, and for me it completely ties in with my thinking. There has been a lot of (to my mind) misguided material published in praise and critique of growth mindset, deliberate practice, ethic of excellence posts which seem to assume that the adoption of these approaches means that young people, with the right mindset and sufficient practice, can become Picasso, Einstein, or Rooney. I have never believed this! For me, deliberate practice and a growth mindset will help me to improve in my teaching, parenting, saxophone playing, cycling, blogging, leadership…or whatever I turn my mind to. It will help me get better with more “stickability” and security. I may never be a world beating teacher or parent, I may never be John Coltrane and I’m seriously unlikely to be Laura Trott, but if I practice and focus then I stand a good chance of being the best that I can be. The best I can be may be limited by my genes, but I won’t find those limits unless I practice.
    Thanks for this – great food for thought as ever.

    1. Yes – I him the debate is becoming unhelpfully polemical and tabloid. Hopefully my post argued for the nuanced truths that lay between. Thanks for replying.

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  5. Hi Alex. Another great post.

    Like Chris, I think there is sometimes a tendency to latch on to certain ideas (Growth Mindset, Deliberate Practice, Ethic of Excellence, etc) without a full understanding of what they can and cannot achieve. For what it is worth, I am committed to the narrative of doing less better, with specific and timely feedback reinforced through carefully structured practice, and think that it can help teachers and students achieve a great deal more than they currently do. How much achievement is ultimately tied to genes is a perhaps a moot point, but I don’t think anyone should be daft enough to assert that someone can do or be anything they want!

    It is incredibly helpful and enabling for our students to understand that in a great many cases so-called talent has been carefully crafted with thousands of hours of dedicated practice. Whether it is possible for people in some domains to bypass this stage, or for others to put in the hours of dedicated practice and not achieve success is not really the point: such an approach strikes me as the most likely way to get students to be the best that they can be, which is surely one of the main goals of education.

    As a footnote, have you read Development of Professional Expertise (edited by Ericsson). Some of the research fleshes out these arguments across a variety of domains. It was recommended to me by Matthew Syed.

  6. Also think about the different career paths Rooney and ronaldo have taken since they played together. When ronaldo joined united he wasn’t nearly the player Rooney was. Now ronaldo is probably the second best player in the world and Rooney isn’t. What has the made the difference?

  7. The ‘exploring infinitely complex interplay’ might take some time.

    It is worth noting that “some” people who may have a high percentage of genetic predisposition to develop something or “into something”(?) but may never do so. And has been pointed out before, things like height matter in basketball but the best player on the planet may not necessarily be the tallest.

    The probability of doing so or not doing so on a sliding scale of achievement is dependent on…; so,yes, it may be a loaded lottery but it can still be a lottery of sorts. If you take the analogy of premium bonds – you can up your chance of winning by buying more bonds and the holders of these larger amounts of bonds will win more often and with larger payouts but, you – individually – as a holder with more, might not. You are only ever going to know in large numbers not with an absolute precision with individuals – every time, no matter how many bonds you buy? When you can do that without fail – well…

    So until these factors are quantifiable one way or the other in a spectrum of zones within the “right” contexts (and I’m sure they’re pretty liminal0 you’re still left with the “exploration” which, with regard to teaching, is very much determined by the systems within which we work and the triggers (known or unknown at present) that may or may not work in the light of those “given” parameters interplaying with heritability of both teacher and student. It still gives me the feeling people are panning for gold, searching for El Dorado when they haven’t even reached the stream or the foothills? An awful lot of projection of hope goes on.

    I am sure with profiling and counselling might emerge but whether it determines what we do is another matter altogether and then I begin to see a lot of frayed edges.

    You’re quite right to point out that meta-analyses can be false friends when you dig into what you are analysing as well!

  8. Wow this was a timely post for me to read! I was thinking about how to plan my assembly about ‘the power of practice’ while watching Usain Bolt and co. running in the 4×100 relay and was starting to have second thoughts!
    From my angle, thinking about what message I can give the kids, it is important to concede elements of the genetic factor especially in certain fields of physical endeavour. However, the gains that deliberate practice can bring can be life-altering, especially in the context of educational achievement. Imagine a student in a deprived area being liberated from the idea that their genes form the basis of their future, and that instead what they could become depends on their effort and smart practice. I’d rather a school full of pupils with this mindset than one full of would-be genetic über mensch or worse still students whose aspiration is already crushed.

    The gains of practice might be perceived as marginal in the study you mentioned, but let’s not under estimate the impact that lots of marginal gains can potentially have, both in terms of the achievement of students and their outlook on life.

    The assembly lives on

    1. Sounds like a good assembly. I actually have issues with the study – whether it is a meta-analysis or not. Perhaps that is for a later blog post! I think the ‘gene narrative’ needn’t be one of determinism, but deliberate practice is certainly more liberating!

  9. Andrew Sabisky

    You have to understand the difference between phenotypic variation and the phenotype itself. We can measure the respective contributions of genes and environment to the former but not the latter. No one can precisely break down exactly how Rooney came to be. What we can do is assess the heritability of footballing ability across the population. If trait heritability is high, we can make the probabilistic inference (no more) that Rooney is better than nearly everyone because of his (no doubt exceptional) genetic endowment.

    Apply this to teaching. If teaching ability is highly heritable (I have no idea if it is, and it’s so hard to measure anyway), this says relatively little about whether or not we could all be better teachers. It simply says that individual differences in teaching ability are currently mostly due to differences in genotypes, not differences in environments. Imagine I invented a wonder drug and gave it to all teachers – we’d all be better pedagogues due to an environmental intervention, but trait heritability would remain high because individual variation would be mostly due genetic variation (because, you see, the environment has been equalized – everyone got the drug). Now imagine I invent the same drug and give it only half of all teachers at random – teaching ability will be far less heritable because environmental variation has a strong impact on individual variation.

    Consequently, deliberate practice will most certainly help your students to improve, for the most part. However, given the high heritability of academic achievement (some 60% of the variation in GCSE scores is due to genes), it’s very unlikely that the rank order of students will change much, assuming everyone does the same amount of deliberate practice. That should not be taken to mean that there are not hard limits on student achievement, because there most definitely are. Eventually you bump into the ceiling; your cognitive capacity is maxed out; your IQ has taken you as far as you can go. Either you can make no further progress, or you can only do so with a ridiculous amount of effort that almost no one has the patience for (probably rightly, in most circumstances). You can tell I’m all too familiar with this scenario…

    However, very little research has gone into establishing exactly where these genetic limits are, given reasonably optimal tuition – something to keep educational psychology busy in the 21st century. The US Army and other military forces are sitting on a mountain of useful data, but insufficient effort has gone into analyzing it, and the army boys are not always willing to share.

  10. @lennyvalentino

    I can understand why the 10,000 hours concept and the idea of deliberate practice is one that educators have latched onto, but for me the standout aspects of both Outliers and Bounce were the issues to do with fortuitousness (the fluke opportunities that allowed talent to flourish), the fact that talent can be overlooked due to our arbitrary choice of cut off dates and the part that the Matthew Effect plays in our paths to success or otherwise.
    For Wayne Rooney, his talent was spotted because he was working class (the overwhelming number of professional footballers are because that’s where the scouts look – see Soccernomics on this!), and it is possible that his October birthday may have given him an advantage on the school football pitch (bigger, physically more mature) that then put the Matthew Effect in motion.
    Encouraging deliberate practice and a growth mindset should, of course, be part of what teachers do (isn’t this what good teachers have always done?), but as we continue to disadvantage some children (summer birthdays for example) and set the Matthew Effect in progress with others (gifted and talented programmes, early setting, ability setting that doesn’t change), these for me are equally, if not more important issues to take away from these fascinating books.

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