by Watson Scott Swail, President, EPI International and the Educational Policy Institute

My summer reading thus far has included the book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (a novel about the painting of the Sistine Chapel) and Bounce, a story of “the science of success.” The first one was simply to impress (not true; great book!!). The second has significant meaning to what we do in education. Today’s commentary focuses on some of the tenets of Matthew Syed’s Bounce.

One may not understand what we may learn from a championship table tennis player like Matthew Syed. But keep with me for a moment. There is much to learn. The thesis of the book is that talent, as we know and define it, is not what it appears to be. In a world of “prodigies” and “overnight sensations,” there is a belief that people are “born” to win. Born to be smart. Born to be “successful.”

As Syed chronicles, very little of this is true. Those who excel in their fields, whether tennis, hockey, or music, did so because they put an amazing amount of dedicated time to their task. They studied. They practiced. They were absolutely and singularly focused on the goal of becoming the best. Or at least very, very good.

Syed talks about Roger Federer and the Williams sisters in tennis, as well as Mozart and, yes, Michelangelo. The truth is not that they were uniquely “talented,” but that they practiced relentlessly and were brought up in an environment that supported that level of study.

For all those who are “experts” in their area (and yes, I know I use quotes a lot), Syed says that the bar for excellence is 10,000 hours of “expert study.” That is not only a lot of time, but a lot of devotion and high-level practice.

For Syed, Britain’s 1995 table tennis champion, he was called those elusive words, such as prodigy. But in truth, he was just an average English kid from Reading. His parents never played, but decided to buy a table tennis table. As Syed writes, “I do not know the exact percentage, but you can imagine that there were not many youngsters of my age in my hometown who possessed a full-size, tournament-specification table.” He also notes that it helped having an older brother that also loved table tennis, and a teacher at his primary school who was the top coach in the nation for table tennis; a coach who started a table tennis club called “Omega.” This club, and the street where Syed grew up on, produced more national players for Britain than the entire rest of the country. That much “talent” on one street? Really.

Bounce brings up several examples of so-called talent. Andre Agazzi, whose father made him hit thousands of tennis balls each and every day with the adage that anyone who hits two million tennis balls a year can’t be beat. And Laszlo Polgar, the Hungarian psychologist who decided that his daughters would become the best chess champions in the world, even though he was an average player, at best, and his wife didn’t play at all. “Children have extraordinary potential, and it is up to society to unlock it,” says Polgar. “The problem is that people, for some reason, do not want to believe it. Thye seem to think that excellence is only open to others, not themselves.” In the end, all three of his daughters were champions. His first daughter, Suan, became world champion of her age group at 12. Ten years later she became the first female grandmaster in history. Sofia, the second child, was Hungarian champion for girls at age five. In 1989, she won eight straight games in the Magistrale di Roma against the world’s best chess players. Her performance is ranked fifth of all time: regardless of gender. And finally came Judit. At age fifteen, in 1991, she became the youngest grandmaster of all time. She was the number one female player in the world for over a decade (only leaving the list to give birth) and beat the top players in the world, including Garry Kasparov.

It isn’t about talent. And the key to excellence is not 10,000 hours, but rather, 10,000 hours of “expert practice.” As Syed notes, the average player or person tends to practice what they are good at. The experts practice what they are not good at. They try and improve at the things that they fail at. They try and get better.

So what does this have to do with education? Everything. Absolutely everything. Each year, by my calcs, we put students of every grade through approximately 1,100 hours of educational practice, not all of which are truly educational. But given 180 days of school by 6.5 hours, we arrive at that sum. After about nine years of this level of study, we reach that magic number of “10,000.” But the difference is that these 10,000 aren’t “expert” study. It isn’t about study among those who want to learn, who are led to learn, and are given the tools to learn. It is, as my former Dean at The George Washington University, Mary Hatwood Futrell, told me, “seat time.” How much time you have to just sit and take it.

The Science of Success, as coined by Matthew Syed, and as it pertains to education, is about how we motivate and teach students to succeed. Our schools are not organized to provide “expert” education. Our teachers are not “experts” in their fields. At least not most of them. They are taught to teach at a minimal level. While this hurts, it is true. As a former middle school teacher, I’ve seen and worked with the inner workings of education at a number of schools, and through my research, even more. But from my personal perspective, my preparation was borderline, at best. I was a very good teacher (note the modesty), but that was due to personality and unbelievably hard work on my part. It wasn’t talent. It was hard, hard work.

Unfortunately, it was mostly hard work because of an intrinsic motivation that I had, instilled by my family; by my community. And surely, by my schools, to be fair. But NOT by my university.

We have created, over hundreds of years, an educational system that has taken hold of the Detroit-mindset of assembly-line production. We push kids through the system. We don’t care enough about how they do or what they learn… we just pass them on. And even in the post-NCLB era of accountability, we still do it.

We don’t do expert practice.

If we need to do one thing in life—the one thing that is completely unselfish—it is to provide an education to our children and the children of our friends, relatives, and neighbors that is the best that can be provided—an education that provides an “expert” level of knowledge in a variety of issues. Students at private schools in the early 18th century had much deeper learning than most of our students today. You don’t believe that? Try reading some of the 19th century authors—American, Canadian, British—without a thesaurus or dictionary. I can’t. Yes, most of them were from societies of privilege. But still, they knew the language and were much more well read than the majority of students today (and yes, in my era, too).

What we need to do is figure out how to make those 10,000 educational hours matter. How do we leverage the time we have with young children to maximize their learning potential? After decades and decades of study, we haven’t figured this out. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Schools suggest they have, to a degree, and other charter and non-charter places, but schools have the ultimate burden of having to compete with issues of community—of violence—of abuse—and even neglect.

If we could leverage our system to provide “expert practice” for all students, imagine what kind of society we would have? A citizenry that would certainly disagree on everything or anything, but could have a level of discourse and discussion that would, hopefully, put Congress and Parliament to shame. The way it was intended. Discuss. Argue. And come to conclusion.

Talent is a great word. But let’s start understanding the reality of knowledge and skill. Work. Sweat. Study.

If we owe our youth anything, it is to work them hard. They will appreciate it later in life. And so will we.

And the world.

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