“If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The persistence of the achievement gap is in part down to its mysterious nature. Teachers, new and old, battle their way through classrooms trying to defeat this enemy, doing everything they can to close the gap. But do we really know what we’re fighting? We can all give reasons why the achievement gap exists – hearing more words when growing up, fewer adverse experiences, more opportunities, greater intellectual stimulation from parents, better surroundings for working, etc, etc, etc. Lists like these give us a sense of the scale and variety of the problem. However they do little to help us solve it. They’re too big, full of too many vaguely related things, and far too complex for an individual teacher to use to build a strategy.
It’s time for a bit of synthesis. We need to boil the problem down into one simple idea; one that is straightforward enough to apply in every classroom, yet powerful enough to close a tremendously persistent gap.
I would argue that the achievement gap is little more than a practice gap.
In recent years our understanding of what it takes to be successful has come a long way, and numerous pieces of research* point to one single defining cause of success – deliberate practice. We know that natural talent, whatever that may be, is a fairly insignificant factor in success. What matters more is the volume and quality of practice in a field. From Tiger Woods to Mozart, the world’s most prodigious talents are actually the world’s most committed practicers.
All of the influences listed at the start of this post, the influences often blamed for the achievement gap, are in some way influences on practice. They shape either its quantity or its quality. Rather than trying to tackle each of these separately and being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, teachers should be empowered by seeing the problem for what it is – a practice gap. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds get worse academic results than their wealthier peers because they have less deliberate practice.
Defining the problem in these terms gives teachers a new challenge:
How do I maximize the quantity and quality of practice my students get in my subject?
Doing so has three major advantages:
A clear problem is easier to solve.Looking separately at all of the different aspects of a problem is confusing and overwhelming. Looking straight to its heart is empowering. Teachers closing an achievement gap have to undo a host of past problems and effects. Teachers closing a practice gap have to maximize deliberate practice.
Two criteria to judge solutions. Every idea, new or old, is judged by asking two questions. How much does this increase the quantity of practice? How much does this increase the quality of practice? If there’s not a resoundingly positive answer to one of these questions, it’s not closing the gap.
It unites teachers around a common problem. When the problem is unclear teachers all see it differently, and use different criteria to judge solutions. Sharing a common understanding of the problem makes conversation more productive, improves the quality of ideas, and aligns teachers towards one specific aim.
I’m going to write two follow-up posts about the practice gap – one on quantity and one on quality. The aim is to provoke some thought about priorities for the classroom, and to guide myself into next year with some specific targets.
The nation is faced with a huge gap. It is a gap into which millions have fallen, and will fall, unless we are able to close it. It is why the UK has some of the worst social mobility in the world, and why your parents wealth is such a powerful predictor of your educational success. It can be represented in many ways, and seen through many lenses, but at its heart, it is just a practice gap.
*Some great books in this genre include Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Dweck’s work on mindset is also pretty influential.