15 November 2010

Can you get success without hard work? On average, no.

It's fascinating how the importance to success that long hours of hard work is, is so often missed or dismissed.

In "Your Child Left Behind", Ripley forwards the notion that standardized tests and curriculum is important to improving education in the USA.  And that, in fact, it's more important than controlling the inputs to education (money spent, teacher/student ratio, etc).

Now, I don't doubt the importance of standardized tests and curriculum at all.  What I was actually struck by in that essay was this comparison:
Last year, a study comparing standardized math tests given to third-graders in Massachusetts and Hong Kong found embarrassing disparities. Even at that early age, kids in Hong Kong were being asked more-demanding questions that required more-complex responses.
This comparison seems to imply something about standardized curriculum and tests, but it completely ignores a major difference in the input to the education system of Hong Kong.  That of private tutors.  Private tutoring in Hong Kong is a big business, and more than half of Hong Kong's students get private assistance outside of school [1].  This is something that is pervasive, occurring at almost all grade levels [2].

My sense is that tutoring is still not a major contributor to the education "system" in the USA, and certainly not in Canada.  Based on my own experience in Canada, I know a fair portion of teachers even actively discourage the students and families from seeking tutors.  This difference in outside of school, tutoring style, input to students' education is an absolutely important difference.

Working out the numbers, if a student attends an hour of tutoring a week for, say, 40 weeks of schooling, that works out to an extra almost 7 weeks of focused, adult supervised and assisted learning.  Many students in Hong Kong attend tutoring sessions more frequently than that.


So it's just not surprising that Hong Kong students are so much better in achievement tests than Canada or the USA. It's also not surprising that the Hong Kong math curriculum can demand students to answer so much more complex questions in lower grades --- because the students have been studying more (as in more hours).

There are many reasons why tutoring isn't as popular here.  Tutoring is sometimes seen as a remedial option, whereas for many in Hong Kong, tutoring is not seen in that light at all [3].  Many of the good and excellent students get tutored too.  So I believe that needing a tutor has a tinge of negativity amongst families here.

Some teachers may also see tutors as a form of competition, in the sense that if their students require tutoring, it might be seen as though the teacher isn't doing a good enough job.  This is nonsense, of course, once we stop thinking of tutoring as remedial.  Why would a student who wants to learn more in their own time not want assistance in helping them learn more?  It's as ridiculous as suggesting that if teachers have done their job well, students shouldn't have to learn outside of the classroom on their own!

But most importantly, having a tutor just means the student spends more hours on focused studying and directed practice.  I have heard one too many times from students I've taught that they studied "hours and hours", but in front of the TV, or Facebook, or while texting, where "hours and hours" means something on the order of 20 minutes.  That's not multi-tasking, that's just distracted studying, which is less than useless.

It's less than useless because it gives the student a way to say they studied for hours, while not having really studied at all.  Then since they could say they studied for hours, they can feel good about having studied, while in actuality, they didn't put in the cognitive effort required to learn from their studying.  Distracted studying is the least amount of cognitive effort, greatest amount of entertainment, and maximum amount of ass-covering (ie, excuses for ineffective learning) that a student can possibly get all at once.

Tutoring time, however, is always focused and directed, given even a half competent tutor.  Think what the student can achieve by studying with a three-quarters competent tutor!  The point is to make the students spend more time studying and practising, and to use that time more effectively.

This principle of more and more effectively is explained as the 10 year rule or the 10,000-hour rule in books like "Sudden Genius: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs," by Andrew Robinson, and "Outliers: The Story of Success," by Malcolm Gladwell.

It's also derided in the recent article, "No You Can't: Is genius a simple matter of hard work? Not a chance", where Teachout seems to take exception to the idea that hard work can make geniuses.  I think Teachout is misunderstanding the application or the implication of the 10,000-hour rule.

When I first read Outliers, I had the initial sense that Gladwell might actually be interpreted as saying that exceptional or genius work is due to environmental factors, ie, innate talent and socio-economic conditions.  It's not just that Bill Gates was smart --- he was --- but that he also had easy access to a computer, which most people didn't have at the time.  So in a sense, Gladwell actually might be read as to support Teachout in that genius isn't a simple matter of hard work.

Fortunately, Gladwell also exposed the fact that even with all those environmental factors (like talent), those "geniuses" still had to spend about 10,000-hours practising their art or skill.  Bill Gates' easy access to a computer meant he could spend so many hours practising.  He wasn't just smart, he had practice.

Yet, authors like Teachout, writing for the Wall Street Journal, seems to be espousing the idea that hours of practice isn't enough to get genius results.  It seems to me Teachout might even be insinuating, and might succeed in persuading readers into thinking, that hard work isn't necessary for excellence, and that talent and genius is what's needed.

Well, maybe strictly speaking, yes, you might not get genius results with just hard work.  But what's wrong with getting merely excellent results through hard work?  In fact, the odds are that excellent results won't be had without hard work.  Although strictly speaking, yes, you might have a lottery's chance to getting success without hard work, but then why not just buy a lottery?  Oh right, because you probably won't win.

So for the rest of us, can we become successful without any hard work?  On average, no.  Can we get genius results without any hard work?  Again, no.  The odds are in favour of those who work hard over the long haul.  We need to market hard work more, and make it look desirable again, for students, or else a vast portion of students will miss out on the information revolution in our industries.


[1] In Hong Kong, star tutors earn $1.5 million salaries
[2] Kwok, L.P. (2004). Emergence of Demand for Private Supplementary Tutoring in Hong Kong: Argument, Indicators and Implications. Hong Kong Teachers' Centre Journal.
[3] Based on testimonials of many of my friends who grew up in Hong Kong.

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