The last kid

We give prizes and ovations to the kids who come first, who write the most sophisticated essays, who run the fastest, who make the fewest mistakes on the test. Those kids get to walk across the stage, shake hands, and get their photo taken. They are the ‘winners’.

But who is there to salute the kid who works just as hard, gives his all but doesn’t get an ‘A’? Who’s there to celebrate the last kid, puffed and sweating, when he crosses the line? Doesn’t he deserve an ovation too?

Or maybe we only cheer for the ‘winners’?

Don’t try harder

In an education system in which ‘grit’ is revered, and ‘perseverance’ is considered a universal human value, there can be a tendency to encourage students to “just keep trying” or to “try harder”.

Now, that’s fine for a while, or when a student clearly is not quite giving their all.

But “try harder” is, literally, the worst piece of advice you can give a student…

…when they are using the wrong technique or are unable to access the right strategy.

Grit and perseverance can become the enemy of achievement

…when we are going about something the wrong way.

And this is where discerning teachers are not afraid to encourage their students to ‘quit’; to reevaluate their approach, to pivot, and to try an alternate pathway.

Instead of ‘try harder’, often our students need to hear: ‘try differently’.

Effort counts twice

How much, if anything, does innate genetically-endowed talent contribute to a child’s musical or mathematical or sports achievement? Or is it all just down to hard work and effort?

The talent versus effort debate has been raging in academic circles for at least 300 years. And it is still a very-much alive discussion in schools around the world.

But perhaps it should end now.

University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, summarises hundreds of reseach studies into human performance and ability in these simple equations:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill Effort = Achievement

So, talent counts but effort counts twice.

(And given that we have 0% control over talent and 100% control over effort, it doesn’t seem like ‘talent’ should get much, if any, airtime in schools, does it?!)

The one-percenters add up

There is a very unusual type of statistic kept in professional Australian Rules Football called a ‘one-percenter‘. A one-percenter is a statistic that recognises an action by a player that entails just a little more effort or courage than normal.

An example of a one-percenter is when a player chases the ball-carrying opposition player over an extended distance. Even if the player is unable to catch or tackle the ball-carrier, the added pressure applied because of the chase is deemed valuable. These one-percenters, in themselves, often have very little apparent impact on the game, in fact they can easily go unnoticed, but collectively they can change the result.

The best educators tend to make an artform of one-percenters. The next chance you have to see an outstanding teacher in action, try to see beyond their content expertise and refined pedagogy and you might observe things like:

  • their ability to subtly shift the energy in the room;
  • an almost imperceptible nod of gratitude to a child who has again helped another student;
  • a well-timed, self-deprecating joke to defuse anxiety;
  • an extraordinary level of organisation, readiness, adaptability and withitness;
  • an enhanced ability to ‘think like a student’, to empathise, and to inspire;
  • an absolute present-mindedness, the sense that there is nothing more important than this lesson, this child, this moment.

In football and in teaching, it’s true that, sometimes, it’s the ‘big’ moments that matter – the great goals, the amazing lesson. But ultimately, the most respected and valued footballers and teachers are the ones who turn up authentically again and again, and really commit to the one-percenters.