Sunday, 5 June 2011


A useful way to think of CE

Last year I read Matthew Syed's book The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Considerably enthused, I intended to write this up in Conductive World but events intervened and the moment passed. This is a pity because this book is a must-read for anyone concerned with understanding and giving a plausible explanation of Conductive Education.

Matthew Syed is a former Olympic table-tennis champion. Much of his book centres, most fascinatingly, around performance in competitive sport, though its argument extends outward into other areas of human life. Its contents are a goldmine of practical examples of human transformability ('modifiability') in response to psycho-social forces, with themes of motivation and self-image much to the fore. Conductive Education has made such a poor show of explaining its work to the world in relevant terms over recent years that it is hardly surprising therefore that CE does not serve as a further example here, as it deserves to.

If you seek an intellectually plausible and defensible explanatory framework, as a much-needed alternative to the threadbare 'neuroplasticity' line, then the psycho-social paradigm exemplified by Matthew Syed's book has been remarkably neglected over recent years. Without immediate need for sophisticate philosophical and theoretical understanding, the wealth of usually fascinating practical examples that he provides can be readily used to create a powerful case against the venemous biological determinism that shapes so many people's understanding of human potential – never more so than in the case of those with disabilities.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a discarded copy of the Guardian newspaper on a train. The lead article in the 'Work' section of its weekly Money supplement was by Matthew Syed. Given its context, the discussion was around the potential of employees, the workforce. What he writes, however, is generalisable. For example, he cites Carol Dweck's well known study that distinguished between 'fixed mindset' (belief that talent and intelligence are largely genetically determined) and 'growth mindset' (belief that they are transformable). Fixed mind-setters blame their failures to solve tasks upon their own inherent limitations, while growth mind-setters do not blame at all, just look for ways whereby they might do better (so many go on to improve their performance). People with fixed mind-sets (you call this a kind of self-image if you wish) believe that what they can do is set in stone, with little room for personal development. Rhetorically Matthew Syed asks –

Is it any wonder, therefore that they [those with fixed mind-sets] interpreted failure as calamitous; that it saps creativity and undermines performance; that they will do anything to avoid challenges, even when they might be useful?
These results are not limited to yougsters; they have been replicated with university students, sportsmen, business leaders, and even systems-engineersn at NASA The growth mindset not only predicts motivation and performance highlights but also other key indicators too.

What about the disabled?

Not just in the workplace

The focus of the article reported above is on the workplace. Read the following short extracts, substituting; 'teacher' or therapist' or 'parent' or 'care' where he writes 'manager' – and 'client' where he writes 'employee'.

Managers with a fixed mind-set, for example, are less able to recognise changes in employee performance and are disinclined to coach employees on how to improve their performance (why would they bother, if they believe that ability levels are fixed?)...
So, how to create a growth mind-set within an organisation? Interventions which have presented participants with the powerful evidence of how excellence derives from perseverance – which explains the possibility of personal transformation – have had a dramatic effect on motivation and performance...
In short, an ethos constructed upon the potential for personal transformation is the underlying psychological principle driving high performance. It is an insight that is not merely deeply relevant to business, but to any organisation interested in unlocking human potential.

Syed, M. (2010) Bounce: how champions are made, the myth of talant and the power of practice, London, Fourth Estate

Syed, M. (2011) How practice does make perfect, Guardian Money, 4 June, pp. 3-4

If you are quick you can order a copy of the book at the reduced price of £7.19:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I'm a huge fan of Matthew's book too, so much so that I actually tracked him down to interview him.

    If you fancy listening to it, I've attached the link:

    Have you had a chance to read some of the other's Matthew references, such as Coyle and Dweck?