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A year of learning ambitiously: How a series of bold experiments reminds us that schools can still aim high

Friday, 15 December 2017

A year of learning ambitiously: How a series of bold experiments reminds us that schools can still aim high
Max Deutsch self-portrait, one of his 12 challenges.

Learning to draw portraits, play guitar or speak a new language are daunting if you believe pop-psychologist Malcolm Gladwell’s famous dictum that it takes 10,000 hours to master a human skill.

Gladwell’s finding, from the book Outliers (2008), was meant to demystify success, revealing it as accessible to anybody prepared to put in the time. It was corroborated by another book that same year, Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, who argued “deliberate practice” from an early age explained greatness in later life more plausibly than the handy excuse, for those who never achieved greatness, of other people’s “innate skill”.

Becoming a great performer, Colvin said, was possible as long as you were prepared to make “the largest investment you will ever make - many years devoted utterly to your goal”.

Gladwell and Colvin were later debunked by various writers and researchers, particularly a team from Princeton, who in 2014 swung the pendulum back towards “basic abilities and other individual difference factors that explain variance in performance”.

But what if both these findings overthink success? What if someone simply set a bunch of seemingly impossible tasks and sought to achieve them over a period of a year?

That’s what 24-year-old American entrepreneur Max Deutsch did, starting last November. He set himself 12 goals - one for each month - that were so ridiculously ambitious that Gladwell, Colvin and the Princeton researchers would for a change agree in scholarly derision.

The goals were wonderfully unrelated. One month Deutsch was building a self-driving car, the next he was teaching himself to identify random musical notes and the one after that he was mastering the most challenging of cryptic crosswords.

He says he achieved his goal in nine of the 12 tasks. You can follow his journey here.

Deutsch admits to having a few head starts - he’d played around with guitars at times during his teen years, which was an advantage in playing an improvised blues solo; his maths degree helped him with the software for his self-driving car and so on - but these hardly diminished the enormity of the challenges.

His greatest advantage was his methodical approach. He broke down each challenge into its smaller challenges and set about achieving them before quickly moving on in order to meet his deadline. He also has an “intense desire to break through my fear”.

His ultimate challenge, to beat the world’s greatest player in a game of chess, was evocatively chronicled by the Wall Street Journal . What he learned from that challenge, and the others that preceded it, he said, went far beyond the immediate challenges themselves. “If you optimise for and value the pursuit, favourable outcomes will follow anyway, even if they aren’t the outcomes you planned for,” he said.

Deutsch’s enlightening story came to us as another reminder of our education system’s dismal preoccupation with instilling fears than “breaking through them” was published.                               

(Below: Pixelation of road markings, part of Deutsch’s project to build a self-driving car.)


“Those doubting whether Australia’s education system has been captured by the cultural left need look no further than the results of the 2016 Years 6 and 10 civics and citizenship survey,” wrote Australian Catholic University researcher Kevin Donnolly in The Australian on Wednesday.

The survey, by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, “happily boasts” about an increase in the percentage of students demonstrating positive attitudes towards indigenous culture and diversity, and found human rights and sustainability were more important to students than discussing our own democracy.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham described the findings as “woeful”.

The survey was released at the same time as the 2017 NAPLAN results, which found marginal improvements in reading and numeracy among primary school students while writing skills had actually deteriorated.

The problem with education is it is structurally based on a 20th century model but occupied by “progressive” teachers zealously focused on environmental doom and the insidiousness of white history.

Deutsch is living proof that there is a more dynamic, innovative and ambitious approach. And while funding for education may at times be essential, it should be tied to specific outcomes. As if we needed reminding, Deutsh also proves that some outcomes can be achieved on a tiny budget as long as the students are inspired, ambitious and hungry for knowledge. - Fred Pawle

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