Performance: A poor proxy for future success


I have just finished reading Professor Damian Hughes’ The Barcelona Way. I believe that many parallels can be drawn between sport and education. This certainly rang true as I read this entertaining and insightful analysis of the winning culture of one of the world’s most successful football teams.

FC Barcelona takes great pride in fostering a power-base among home-grown players and that means identifying and investing in talent from a very early age. In a culture where many, many young boys grow up dreaming of playing for FC Barcelona, how does the club know who will be the ones that will win games for the club 10 or 15 years down the track?

Logic would surely suggest that current performance is the most reliable indicator of future performance. But this logic is flawed and Hughes provides us with an excellent illustration of this:

Take the National Football League (NFL), for instance, which represents the zenith of talent-identification science. At the pre-draft NFL ‘combine,’ teams exhaustively test players in every physical and mental capacity known to science: strength, agility, explosiveness, intelligence. They look at miles of game film. They analyse every piece of evidence available data. And each year, they manage to get it absolutely wrong. In fact, out of the forty top-rated combine performers over the past four years, only half are still in the league, never mind the star performers.

A lot of smart people have been thinking about why this happens, and they’ve decided the problem is not that the measures are wrong – the problem is that measuring performance is the wrong way to approach talent identification.

According to much of this new work, what matters is not current performance, but rather growth potential – the complex, multi-faceted qualities that help someone learn and keep on learning, to work past inevitable plateaus, to adapt and be resourceful and keep improving.

This can’t be measured with a stopwatch or a tape measure. It’s more subtle and complex. Which means that instead of looking at performance, you look for signs, subtle indicators. In other words, you have to close your eyes, ignore the dazzle of current performance and instead try to detect the presence of a few key characteristics.

FC Barcelona is ‘more than a club’ in the way that it represents Catalonia and strives to play a certain style of football. But its success is still measured in games and trophies won and depends on developing players that can deliver those wins and trophies.

The International School of Yangon (ISY) is a community of compassionate global citizens. ISY’s Vision is to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world. Instead of developing players to win football games, ISY is striving to develop students who can change the world for the better and the success of the school will be measured in these terms.

Before identifying the key characteristics that must be present in a student for them to go on to make a positive difference to the world, we must be clear that these characteristics are not replacements for academic performance. While not all change agents are academics or even professionals in the traditional sense, academic performance is the most effective way to position oneself to make a positive difference. After all, those young football players in the NFL combine got their opportunity through their performances. Hughes’ point was that those performances could not be taken as indicators of future success in the absence of some key characteristics or attributes.

ISY’s compassionate Mission and Vision were confirmed just over a year ago and we are currently reviewing our Schoolwide Learner Outcomes (SLOs) to ensure that what we expect of our students (and faculty) align with the Mission and Vision. SLOs is the term used by The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), our accrediting authority.

After a collaborative process to identify the current and future needs of our students in light of our Mission and Vision, we reviewed the research and frameworks of educational authorities such as WASC, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, Center for Curriculum Redesign, and The International Baccalaureate. Seven ISY Attributes have been preliminarily identified as being essential for the success of our students, in addition to academic performance:

  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Compassion
  • Reflection

Hughes himself identified ‘early ownership’ as a key to the success of FC Barcelona’s best players:

As psychologist Marjie Elferink-Gemser’s work shows, one trend among successful athletes begins when they’re thirteen or so, and develop a sense of ownership of their training. For the ones that succeed, this age is when they decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine – they begin to go further, reaching beyond the programme, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own.

Hughes is essentially describing student agency – the capacity and propensity of students to take purposeful initiative.

The development of student agency and the ability to apply knowledge and skills to unfamiliar or unknown contexts (crucial for FC Barcelona players) have been identified as pressing current and future needs of our students at ISY.

We believe that the explicit integration of the seven ISY Attributes into our curriculum, pedagogy, and extra-curricular program will develop the agency and application needs of our students. It is then our hope that our students will meet the needs of the world in which they will live and make a decent and happy life for themselves in doing so. Some of them might even get a trophy.

Hughes, Damian. The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Culture. Macmillan, 2018.

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