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.)