A couple of weeks ago I took part in a school INSET day, and I have to admit I didn’t recognise the name of the guest speaker, all I knew was that he was a world champion ping-pong player. I immediately had visions of the character in the radio version of Little Britain – Denver Mills – a silver-medallist Olympian who gives speeches at corporate events likening almost anything, selling double-glazing, making furniture, packing fruit, to running the 400 metres.
As soon as the speaker appeared, I realised my mistake – it was the Times journalist Matthew Syed, and I recognised him immediately from some thoughtful TV appearances.
It was a slightly surreal event, hundreds of us crammed into a new but shabby, windowless school sports hall. They hadn’t provided a PA for Matthew, who has a lovely voice but he’s very softly-spoken. So he stood in the middle of the aisle so more people could hear, and he was right next to me, which was good because I could hear him very well and make eye contact, but also not good because I had to pay bright-eyed attention for the best part of an hour.
I’m probably going to hideously over-simplify his message, and I admit I’ve not read his book, but here goes.
He made a convincing argument about the dangers of the way we in the Western world regard talent and about fixed versus ‘growth’ mindsets. He argued that talent is hugely over-rated. Saying (and thinking) that you are born with (or without) a talent for, say maths or sport is, he says, hugely damaging and limiting. It prevents people from reaching their full potential.
He had two powerful examples to back this up. He had been told that his reaction times were some of the fastest of anyone on the planet. Armed with this pleasing accolade about his talent, when he interviewed the tennis player Michael Stich he had a knock-about, and told him that he could return any ball Stich served at him. He never even saw the first ball coming, having only a vague sensation of something whooshing past his ear. Stich served 4 straight aces and Syed never got near the ball.
So much for the fastest reaction times in the world. Talking to sports scientists, and getting himself wired up to some sports tech, he discovered he was looking in the wrong place. He’d been looking at the ball. Professional tennis players don’t look at the ball, they read almost imperceptible signals from their opponents’ upper body positions that enable them to read where the ball will go even before it’s been struck. Even armed with this knowledge, Syed couldn’t return a tennis serve any better. Pro tennis players’ reaction times aren’t any faster than yours or mine – but what they have done is spend years and years practising reading these subtle signs. Not so much innate talent, more hard graft.
His other example was about his own sport of table tennis. A huge proportion of the top players in the UK all lived on the same street. His street. This was not because of some freak localised genetic mutation. This because on this street there was one of the few 24-hour table tennis facilities in the country, to which everyone on the street had a key, and an amazing coach. Talent played a small role – some people will always be better than others – and indeed Syed became a world champion, but some of his perfectly ordinary neighbours became county champions purely through hard work and great teaching.
He then talked about how limiting the ‘fixed mindset’ view of talent is. Children who think they are ‘no good at maths’ become disengaged because they will never succeed. But the children born with apparent talent also suffer, and he gave the example of Premier League football academies, who struggle to turn their young players into successful players. The reason, Syed says, is that they work really hard to get into an academy, then when they do get in they decide ‘I must be talented, I got in, agents are waving money and praise at me.’ And talent is supposed to look effortless, so they cannot admit to need practice or to work hard at any of the skills needed to be a great player.
He also said that the trend from the 1970s onwards of lavishing praise on all children, regardless of the quality of their work, was also very damaging. It was a well-intentioned attempt to boost self-esteem, but that kind of self-esteem isn’t worth having, he argued. It’s worthless because as soon as you come up against something you can’t do, you crumble and give up, thinking ‘I wasn’t any good after all’.
If, however, you have a ‘growth mindset’, Syed argued, you do not stop at the first obstacle saying, for example “I’m no good at behaviour management in the classroom, I just don’t have natural authority.” Instead, you think: how can I get better? What literature is there I can read for tips? Can I watch a colleague who does have good behaviour in their class to see what techniques they use? And by this point in the talk I was utterly convinced not only of his case, but also that in many areas I was guilty of having a fixed mindset myself.
Then a man sitting near me asked him “Do you enjoy table tennis?”
It was a great question. He asked it because at no point had Syed mentioned joy. Syed readily acknowledged the importance of joy, but the fact that he hadn’t mentioned it in about half an hour set me thinking. And this is the conclusion I reached: just because I can, with the right teaching and hard work, become good at table tennis / flamenco / calculus / rock climbing / painting – doesn’t mean that I should. Not if I don’t want to. Not if I don’t enjoy it.
Now clearly, some things are more important than others. A child might need to do some things they hate in order to pass some basic exams to get any kind of job. Great teaching can go a long way to inspire, but if it’s something a child fundamentally has no interest in, you are going to have a struggle. And I think that’s probably okay, if – and it’s a big if – the child has at least one thing they are passionate about, one thing they love. And it is the role of teachers to find that thing and draw it out of the child – as in the meaning of the Latin route of the word ‘educate’ – to lead or draw out. Draw out the one thing that brings them joy.