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.