Innate Ability vs. Training and Continuous Improvement

In a fascinating New Yorker piece, James Suroweicki makes an interesting connection between the performance revolution in professional sports and Elizabeth Green and Dana Goldstein‘s recent books on teaching. Suroweicki notes that a performance revolution has occurred in sports because athletes, coaches, and managers shifted from believing that athletic skill is something innate that people have or don’t to believing that innate ability is only the foundation for athletic prowess and that constant, carefully designed training is critical to developing/maintaining/honing the skills that drive a competitive edge. He argues that a similar evolution in thinking has driven productivity increases and higher performance in areas of the economy from classical musical performance to manufacturing, but that we have not seen similar progress in education because the education field continues to view great teaching as an innate skill that someone either has or doesn’t and to consequently underinvest in training.

It’s a provocative argument that clearly resonates on some levels but is ultimately, I think, incomplete. In part, because Suroweicki discounts the (clearly not enough) progress that has been made in improving educational outcomes over the past 15 years. Two additional observations I’d add to this:

  • There’s  obviously a link between the idea that teaching is an innate skill you either have or don’t have and the notion that firing “bad” teachers is the way to solve the problem of poor quality teaching. The same value-added analyses that have demonstrated the significant impact of teachers on student learning in recent years may also have reinforced the notion that teaching is an innate skill one either has or doesn’t have, because these studies have tended to find that most common proxies for teacher quality (type of certification, master’s degrees, years experience, etc.) predict only a small portion of the variance in student learning between teachers. This result doesn’t actually mean, though, that the core of what makes a great teacher is some sort of innate secret sauce or generic “talent” you’re either born with or aren’t.  It just means we’re not measuring the right things–and that our conventional metrics of teacher quality and conventional approach to teacher training around lousy.
  • Focusing on the “you’ve got it or you don’t” attitude as applied to teachers overlooks an even bigger factor in our educational stagnation–the same attitude applied to students. Much of our education system continues to operate on the assumption that “being smart” is something innate that kids either have or don’t, not something that kids become as a result of hard work and effective teaching. But as Amanda Ripley and others have documented, the nations that are kicking our butts academically don’t tend to view educational success that way. Schools here at home that succeed with low-income kids also tend to take the attitude that smart is not something that you are, but something you become by working hard. Recent research supports that view. But it’s still far from the norm in our education system. And until that changes, training teachers better will probably not, on its own, drive the change we need for kids.