Bounce by Matthew Syed – implications for learning and teaching

Its been a great break over Christmas and New Year and I managed to find time for a bit of leisure reading. One of the non-cycling books I read was the 2010 classic Bounce by Matthew Syed which provides a very readable perspective on the importance of sustained purposeful practice in the achievement of excellence in sport and other pursuits rather than talent or genetic make up being the most important determinant of success. I made a few notes of the implications for learning and teaching of the ideas raised in this book:

  1. Deliberate practice to achieve excellence needs to be considerable, sustained and focus on things you can’t do well. Syed refers to Malcolm Gladwell Outliers who notes that most top performers practice for around 1000 hours a year and have done so for at least 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule). This level of practice and experience is required for world class performance in a discipline so is not necessary for the levels of mastery required in education.
  2. Feedback is vital for improvement and learning activities should be designed to focus on the most important skills and also to maximise the potential for feedback available to the learner when they practice these skills. On page 100 Matthew Syed describes how a trainee doctor on a breast scanning placement will have relatively few opportunities to diagnose a scan that exhibits cancer symptoms and also the time taken to take a tissue sample and laboratory diagnosis means that feedback is limited only to other professional opinion. A much more powerful learning experience is available through access to a database of scans where laboratory diagnoses are available for each so each decision can be immediately reviewed for feedback.
  3. Matthew Syed (page 114) refers to experiments by Carol Dweck (1978) in which she distinguished between two types of mindset which influence that persons ability and willingness to learn. A fixed mindset reflects the view that ability relates to talent (genetics) and therefore if an activity is found to be difficult it is better to move on rather than persevere. A growth mindset is based on the understanding that ability is achieved through practice and so tasks that are initially found difficult can be improved through effort. One skill where the fixed mindset is apparently particularly prevalent is mathematics “I’m no good with numbers…”. So in teaching we need to foster a growth mindset and in 1998 Carol Dweck (Syed 2010 page 121) showed that the words and phrases used in feedback provided to students can either reinforce or change these mind sets. The bottom line from this study is that feedback should praise effort rather than draw attention to any perception of ability.e.g. “Well done, you must have worked very hard at this” rather than “Well done you are obviously very talented at this”

I really enjoyed this book and found these insights very useful for reflecting on teaching practices. Next I intend to read the “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein (2013) which would appear to take a quite different perspective and highlights flaws in the 10,000 hours rule. I intend to write a similar reflective post on this book with further lessons for teaching and learning that hopefully don’t undermine the ones listed here!