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So... examine the evidence
So... adopt evidence-based methods
So... enhance learning
Born or made? Opportunity, time, effort and tenacity create experts
It is rare to be an expert- or at least to be a recognized expert. So what makes an expert?
Is there any chance that little Julie in 9B can be an expert in her life- or are
her ‘so-obvious’ abilities clearly going to exclude her from joining such an
Research on experts gives us a clear answer- we can do a lot to make experts
in our own classrooms.
One Million Minutes
Fenton Whelan’s ‘Lesson Learned- How Good Policies Produce Better Schools’ (2009) is worth a
read. He calculates that a learner spends one million minutes at school if they study from age four
to age 18. ONE MILLION MINUTES. What they learn during their time at school is essentially the
sum of what they learn in those one million individual minutes. Learning happens in classrooms-
and much of the achievement gap between individuals must ultimately be the the result of
differences in what happens in respective classrooms. Teachers matter an awful lot.
Where do experts come from?
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers- The Story of Success’ (2008) explores the reasons why some
people achieve so much more than others. He makes it clear that very successful people- experts,
achieve success through opportunity, effort and a wee bit of luck.
Clearly opportunity is complex. Wealth and privilege bring with it elevated opportunity- the
inequality of assured high-end private schooling, access to music and sports lessons and an
internship perhaps after graduation. State schools offer opportunity too- perhaps the sole source
of opportunity for the less privileged.
A key question for teachers and school leaders is, “what really does opportunity look like in those
one million minutes?” Is it planned for with seriousness- and is it well targeted?
The Hungarian psychologist Lazlo Polgar published ‘Bring Up Geniuses’ in the 1960’s. His
fundamental belief was that geniuses were made, not born. He felt that, with the right training and
perserverance (opportunity and effort) anybody could reach the level of expert. Polgar decided to
test his theory by home-educating his young daughters, and training them to be great chess
champions. They duly became chess grandmasters and currently rank first, second and sixth best
in the world!
Made, not born?
There is a growing body of evidence that every child has the potential to reach the highest levels
of performance. Studies on separated identical twins demonstrates that education and upbringing
are the key determinants of educational success (except with basketball players!).
Upbringing and the opportunities that it offers (or denies) is paramount in defining whether that
potential will be reached.
The data below is from the Office for National Statistics (2009) Social Trends.
Socio-economic positions clearly influences levels of achievement:
But parental educational experience, and with it the awareness and expectation on children to
embrace schooling themselves and aspire appears to have a significant effect:
On reflection that quote makes me worry even more by the current barriers to degree-level
education: a massive increase in tuition fees, a reduction in funding to universities for degree
programmes and a cut in the number of degree level places. The quote above suggests that this
might not only impact on the life chances of those electing not to study for degrees but also on the
very achievement of their children.
Gladwell makes an interesting case for ‘expertise’ taking 10,000 hours of focussed practice. Whilst
his argument is compelling, it is rather thin on data and relies on anecdote and biographies.
Clearly, mastery takes time- but mastery and the time it takes is reliant on opportunity (time,
money, access to mentors or events) and it takes a belief in the value of effort- long, hard
My own kids are nifty swimmers and reasonable piano players- they have had the opportunity
to access swimming and piano lessons for years. They have also been brought up to
recognize that effort brings improvement, and failure when experienced isn’t permanent.
All of the students in our schools could do just as well given the opportunity, and parents and
teachers who develop in them growth mindsets that support tenacity.
A blueprint for schools
Without opportunity learners can’t even attempt to achieve- and that applies not just to
English Maths and Science but to swimming and piano playing. The inequality of wealth that
makes or denies access to expertise in music and sport is immoral.
The one million hours that learners spend in schools must provide the opportunity for
students to achieve in all areas- and they must be high quality opportunities, delivered by
teachers with passion and using evidence-based methods that are known to maximise
Schools must work hard throughout the one million hours of a learner’s journey to promote
growth mindsets and resilience. Young people provided with a rich learning experience and
armed with a self belief that has absolute faith in the value of effort are much more likely to
rise to the challenge of the 10,000 hour rule- and realise their personal genius in their