How many times have you heard it—or said it, “Practice. Work hard. Just keep trying. All you have to do is work harder. Then you’ll succeed.”
But in a recent Washington Post blog post, Alfie Kohn discusses a new meta-analysis that calls into question that traditional wisdom that links practice time and success. A meta-analysis takes the results of multiple research studies and statistically combines them into one overall conclusion. In this case, the authors examined 88 studies linking deliberate practice and performance in various disciplines. The first of their conclusions isn’t very surprising. People who spend more time practicing something, in general, do better at it than people who don’t. Anyone who has ever played an instrument or worked to master a sport can easily identify with the principle—as we practice, we improve.
But things aren’t quite that simple. There has been a body of writing over the last 20 years suggesting that practice isn’t just a factor in success, it is the factor (see, for example, the work of Ericsson and colleagues listed below). This analysis suggests otherwise–that while practice helps, it doesn’t actually explain differences in performance—at least not in all areas. In fact, practice time explains quite a bit of the variation in performances in game playing (26%), music (21%) or sports (18%). But in education, it explained only 4% of the variation in performance, and when considering professional success, it explained very little (1%).
If working harder and more diligently doesn’t explain success, what does? Kohn suggests that one important factor is intrinsic motivation. Given the complex ties among intrinsic motivation, creativity, and learning, this makes sense. Think about an area in which you’ve been successful. Did you practice? Did you work hard? Now, here’s one key—why? Why did you work hard? Did you work and persist because you were told to do so? Or did you persist and work hard because you were interested, you were successful, or you cared about the results? There is an enormous difference between a student obediently working hard to complete reading worksheets and a student engrossed in a challenging but interesting book. They both are “practicing” reading, but which is more likely to become a successful reader?
As many of us think about the school year approaching, of course we’ll want to help students practice important skills and work with essential ideas. We want to help them regulate their behavior and persist in seeking goals. But when we do, let’s be careful not to confuse means and ends. Practice alone may do little to explain success—hard work and “grit” are helpful but not sufficient. A key ingredient is using those skills and ideas in tasks students find interesting and worth their energy. And that’s a job for teacher creativity at its finest!
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-R.mer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363–406. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363
Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science. Published online before print July 1, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0956797614535810