7 October 2016

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle

Part 1: Deep practice

Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you're forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realising it.

Bjork cites an experiment by psychologist Henry Roediger at Washington University of St. Louis, where students were divided into two groups to study a natural history text. Group A studied the paper for four sessions. Group B studied only once but was tested three times. A week later both groups were tested, and Group B scored 50 percent higher than Group A. They'd studied one-fourth as much yet earned far more. (Catherine Fritz, one of Bjork's students, she applied these ideas to her schoolwork, and raised her GPA by a full point while studying half as much.)

(Page 44) To sum up: it's time to rewrite the maxim that practice makes perfect. The truth is, practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect. And myelin operates by a few fundamental principles.

  1. The firing of the circuit is paramount. Myelin is not built to respond to fond wishes or vague ideas or information that washes over us like a warm bath. The mechanism is built to respond to actions: the literal electrical impulses traveling down nerve fibers. It responds to urgent repetition. In a few chapters we’ll discuss the likely evolutionary reasons, but for now we’ll simply note that deep practice is assisted by the attainment of a primal state, one where we are attentive, hungry, and focused, even desperate.
  2. Myelin is universal. One size fits all skills. Our myelin doesn't "know” whether it's being used for playing shortstop or playing Schubert: regardless of its use, it grows according to the same rules. Myelin is meritocratic: circuits that fire get insulated. If you moved to China, your myelin would wrap fibers that help you learn to speak Mandarin. To put it another way, myelin doesn’t care who you are – it cares what you do.
  3. Myelin wrарs – it doesn't unwrap. Like a highway-paving machine, myelination happens in one direction. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it (except through age or disease). That's why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors – by myelinating new circuits.
  4. Age matters. In children, myelin arrives in a series of waves, some of them determined by genes, some dependent on activity. The waves last into our thirties, creating critical periods during which time the brain is extraordinarily receptive to learning new skills. Thereafter we continue to experience a net gain of myelin until around the age of fifty, when the balance tips toward loss. We retain the ability to myelinate throughout life – thankfully, 5 percent of our oligos remain immature, always ready to answer the call. But anyone who has tried to learn a language or a musical instrument later in life can testify that it takes a lot more time and sweat to build the requisite circuitry. This is why the vast majority of world-class experts start young. Their genes do not change as they grow older, but their ability to build myelin does.

On one level, the study of myelin sounds like an exotic new neuroscience. But on another level, myelin is similar to another evolution-built mechanism you use every day: muscles. If you use your muscles a certain way – by trying hard to lift things you can barely lift – those muscles will respond by getting stronger. If you fire your skill circuits the right way – by trying hard to do things you can barely, in deep practice – then your skill circuits will respond by getting faster and more fluent.

(Page 53) We get something approaching a universal theory of skill that can be summed up in a temptingly concise equation: deep practice x 10,000 hours = world-class skill. But the truth is life's more complicated than that. The truth is, it's better to use the information as a lens through which we can illuminate how the talent code works, to uncover hidden connections between distant worlds, to ask strange questions, like: what do the Bronte sisters have in common with skateboarders?

The Three Rules of Deep Practice

  • Chunk it up – Absorb the whole thing; Break it into chunks; Slow it down
  • Repeat it
  • Learn to feel it

(Page 85) Why does slowing down work so well? The myelin model offers two reasons. First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision With each firing – and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. As football coach Tom Martinez likes to say, "It's not how fast you can do it. It's how slow you can do it correctly.” Second, going slow helps the practitioner to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.

(Page 86) Working with Anastasia Kitsantas of George Mason University, Zimmerman posed a question: Is it possible to judge ability solely by the way people describe the way they practice? To take, for instance, a roomful of ballerinas of varying ability, query them about demi-pliés, and then accurately pick out the best dancer, second-best dancer, third-best dancer, and so on, based not on their performance but solely on how they talked about practicing those demi-pliés? {also went on to assess the dancers with actual demonstrations to validate their initial conclusions.}

(Page 88) Like everything in our body, myelin is in constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That's why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older.

Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however, a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however, doesn't obey the same math. Spending more time is effective – but only if you're still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What's more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson's research shows that most world-class experts including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes – practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.

People at most of the hotbeds I visited practiced less than three hours a day. The younger Spartak kids (ages six to eight) practiced a mere three to five hours each week, while older teens ratcheted up to fifteen hours a week. The Little League baseballers of Curaçao, some of the world's best, play only seven months a year, usually three times a Week. There were some exceptions – Meadowmount, for instance, insists on five hours of daily practice for its seven-week course. But on the whole the duration and frequency of practice in hotbeds seemed reasonable sane.

Part 2: Ignition

This is how ignition works. Where deep practice is a cool. conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening. Where deep practice is an incremental wrapping, ignition works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, eνolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind's vast reserves of energy and attention. Where deep practice is all about s about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be. We usually think of passion as an inner quality. But the more I visited hotbeds, the more I saw it as something that came first from the outside world. In the hotbeds the right butterfly wingflap was causing talent hurricanes.

Average weekly practice

(Page 106) That signal sparked an intense, nearly unconscious response that manifested itself as an idea: I want to be like them. It wasn't necessarily a logical idea for them to have.

(Page 132) The larger reason, however, is that Curaçao possessed a set of tools to keep the ignition of Jones's success lit. Curaçao grew talent because the message of Jones's success was translated and amplified into a reliable combination of primal cues. Frank Curiel Field, after all, only looks like a beat-up baseball diamond. It is in fact a million-watt antenna steadily transmitting a powerful stream of signals and images that add up to thrilling whisper: Hey, that could be you.

The experiment then came full circle, returning to a test of the same difficulty as the initial test. The praised-for-effort group improved their initial score by 30 percent, while the praised-for-intelligence group's score declined by 20 percent. All because of six short words {“You must be smart at this” vs. “You must have worked really hard”}. Dweck was so surprised at the result that she reran the study five times. Each time the result was the same.

When we use the term motivational language, we are generally referring to language that speaks of hopes, dreams, and affirmations ("You are the best!"). This kind of language – let's call it high motivation – has its role. But the message from Dweck and the hotbeds is clear: high motivation is not the kind of language that ignites people. What works is precisely the opposite: not reaching up but reaching down, speaking to the ground-level effort, affirming the struggle. Dweck's research shows that phrases like "Wow, you really tried hard,” or "Good job, dude," motivate far better than what she calls empty praise.

Ignition | How to ignite a (talent) hotbed

The majority of charter schools are built on a foundation of educational theory, such as Waldorf, Montessori, or Piaget. Feinberg and Levin, short on time, instead followed the principles of Butch Cassidy: they stole. They located their district's best teachers and nabbed lesson plans, teaching techniques, management ideas, schedules, rules – everything. Feinberg and Levin would later be called “innovative,” but at the time they were about as innovative as a shoplifter during a blackout "We took every good idea that wasn't nailed down," Feinberg said. "We took everything but the kitchen sink, and we went back and took the kitchen sink too.”

(Page 146) Each child is introduced by name, handed a large three-ring binder, and given a group-clap of praise, on the beat. Backpacks, water bottles, and coats are left with parents – they need nothing. KIPP teachers walk up and down the growing lines, making sure binders are held in the left hand (nice and flat, with spine down), that feet are straight, hands are extended, shirts tucked in. Urged to smile, none do. Ali walks the line. She stops at one boy and makes a twenty-degree correction in the angle at which he is holding his binder.

This is KIPP culture. It covers how to walk, how to talk (they work on the three-inch voice, the twelve-inch voice, and the room voice), how to sit at a desk (forward, upright. no pencil in hand), how to look at a teacher or classmate who’s speaking (called tracking: head up, eyes on them, shoulders toward the speaker), and even how to negotiate the bathroom (use four or five sheets of toilet paper, one squirt of soap to wash hands). KIPP teachers plant trash around the school and see who picks it up, then celebrate that person in front of the group. They are constantly executing precise routines of clapping, chanting, and walking together. (Older students operate under more relaxed rules – they needn't walk in lines, for instance but even those privileges are earned.)

Every single detail matters." Feinberg says. "Everything they do is connected to everything else around them.”

(Page 150) One of the ways KIPP creates that change is through a technique it calls stopping the school. This is not fanciful language. When someone violates a significant rule, classes screech to a halt, and teachers and students hold a meeting to discuss what just happened and how to fix it. A few weeks before I visited, the school had stopped because a sixth grader had teased another student, calling her an elephant. The previous stop had happened when a student rolled his eyes at a teacher. By most reasoning, stopping the school when a student teases or rolls their eyes is a gigantic waste of time. And yet it works. KIPP, like a giant Link trainer, creates an environment for deep-practicing good behavior. Stopping the school for an eye roll is not inefficient; on the contrary, KIPP has found that it’s the most efficient way to establish group priorities, locate errors, and build the behavioral circuits that KIPP desires.

As you can tell, KIPP's most important signal – its version of an Andruw Jones home run – is college. Or as it's invariably voiced at KIPP, College! College is the spiritus sancti that is invoked hundreds of times each day, not so much as a place as a glowing ideal. Each homeroom is named after the college the teacher attended (...). KIPP teachers are skilled at slipping references to college into conversation, always with the presumption that all the students are destined for those golden shores. While I visited a social studies class, one student turned in her homework without her name on it. Her teacher's response was to stop the class. “You know how many papers your college professor is going to get?” the teacher asked, radiating incredulity. “You think he's going to take the time to figure out it's yours? Think about that.” As English teacher Leslie Eichler said, "We say college as often as people in other schools say um." Even the lettering above the classroom mirrors inquires,  “Where will YOU go to college?"

KIPP students start visiting colleges as soon they're enrolled. KIPP Heartwood's fifth graders go to California schools like USC, Stanford, and UCLA, while seventh graders fly to the East Coast to walk the Campus of Yale, Columbia, and Brown, among others. While there, they meet with KIPP alumni who tell of their of their own journeys.

“Right now college is just a vague idea to them,” Ali tells me later, gesturing at the new fifth graders. “But by the end of the fifth grade, after they make a visit, we overhear then talking about it among themselves, saying things like 'Yeah, I like Berkeley, but I think I'm more of a Cal Poly person.” That’s when we know it’s clicking.”

Part 3: Master Coaching | The Talent Whisperers

Instead, the teachers and coaches I met were quiet, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching thirty or forty years. They possessed the same sort of gaze: steady, deep, unblinking. They listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student's personality. After meeting dozen of these people, I started to suspect that they were all secretly related. They were talent whisperers. They were people like Hans Jensen.

(Page 168) Gallimore and Tharp recorded 2,326 acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way, a sequence that appeared in Gallimore and Tharp's notes as M+, M-, M+; it happened so often they named it a “Wooden”. As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, Wooden’s demonstrations rarely take longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch.”

(Page 170) Gradually a picture came into focus: what made Wooden a great coach wasn't praise, wasn't denunciation, and certainly wasn't pep talks. His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there. His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. He was seeing and fixing errors. He was honing circuits. He was a virtuoso of deep practice, a one-man Link trainer.

These people are not average teachers, neither is Mary Epperson. As Bloom and his researchers realized, they are merely disguised as average because their crucial skill does not show up on conventional measures of teaching ability. They succeed because they are tapping into the second element of the talent code: ignition. They are creating and sustaining motivation; they are teaching love. As Bloom's study summed up, "The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.”

It is not easy to love playing the piano. It has lots of keys. and a child has lots of fingers, and there are an infinite number of mistakes that can be made. Yet certain teachers have the rare ability to make it desirable and fun.

(Page 176) "Perhaps the major quality of these teachers was that they made the initial learning very pleasant and rewarding. Much of the introduction to the field was as a playful activity, and the learning at the beginning of this stage was much like a game. These teachers gave much positive reinforcement and only rarely were critical of the child. However, they did set standards and expected the child to make progress, although this was largely done with approval and praise."

(Page 178) Coaching is a long, intimate conversation, a series of signals and responses that move toward a shared goal. A coach's true skill consists not in some universally applicable wisdom that he can communicate to all, but rather in the supple ability to locate the sweet spot on the edge of each individual student's ability, and to send the right signals to help the student reach toward the right goal, over and over.

Patience is a word we use a lot to describe great teachers at work. But what I saw was not patience, exactly. It was more like probing, strategic impatience. The master coaches I met were constantly changing their input. If A didn’t work, they tried B and C; if they failed, the rest of the alphabet was holstered and ready. What seemed like patient repetition from the outside was actually, on closer examination, a series of subtle variations, each one a distinct firing, each one creating a worthwhile combination of errors and fixes that grew myelin.

Of the many phrases I heard echoing around the talent hotbeds, one stood out as common to all of them. It was “Good. Okay, now do –––.” (...). As soon as the student could accomplish the feat (play that chord, hit that volley), the coach would quickly layer in an added difficulty. Good. Okay, now do it faster. Now do it with harmony. Small successes were not stopping points but stepping stones.


Deep practice

(Page 209) But studies show that baby-brain DVDs don't make children smarter. In fact, they make them less smart. A 2007 University of Washington study found that, for children aged eight to sixteen months, each hour spent per day viewing "brain science" baby DVDs decreased vocabulary acquisition by 17 percent. And when you think about it in terms of the myelin model, this makes perfect sense. Baby-brain DVDs don't work because they don't create deep practice – in fact, they actively prevent it, by taking up time that could be used for firing circuits. The images and sounds on the DVDs wash over the babies like a warm bath – entertaining and immersive but useless compared with the rich interactions, errors, and learning that happens when babies are staggering around in the real world. Or, to put it another way: Skill is insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.

(Page 212) Ellis, who went on to write dozens of books, built a straight-talk, action-oriented approach that challenged the Freudian model of examining childhood experience. "Neurosis is just a high-class word for whining," he said. "The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you to feel better. But you don't get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action."

Ellis's approach, combined with that of Dr. Aaron Beck, became known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has been shown, according to The New York Times, to be equal to or better than prescription drugs for combating depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As Ellis liked to point out his ideas weren't new: they came from the Stoic philosophers like Epictetus, who said, "It's not events, but our opinions about them, which cause us suffering." Ellis, who died in 2007, was named the second most influential psychologist of the twentieth century by the American Psychological Association. (Carl Rogers was first, Freud was third.)

The Shyness Clinic session I attended, which included eight clinically shy people, was typical. There was no talk about anybody's past, no attempt to deconstruct the root causes of shyness. There was only practice and feedback, overseen by Shiloff's gentle but tough-minded coaching, correcting any inaccurate perceptions and pushing them to try harder, once more. It was like being at Meadowmount, Spartak, or any other talent hotbed.

The clients start by attempting to master easier challenges: role-playing water-cooler chat and phone calls. Over several months, they gradually progress to harder tasks, such as asking for a date. At the program's highest level, they perform Olympian feats of outgoingness such as purposely embarrassing themselves by dropping a watermelon in the middle of a crowded supermarket. The point, Shiloff explained, is to fire the circuit and thus to linger in the discomfort a little longer each time. It is the staggering-baby process all over again, although the clinic has more suitable ways to describe the sensation.

(Page 218) Carol Dweck, the psychologist who studies motivation, likes to say that all the world's parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort. To which I would add, tell them how the myelin mechanism works, as Dweck herself did in a study that revealed the power of sending this message. She began by splitting seven hundred low-achieving middle Schoolers into two groups. The first were given an eight-week workshop of study skills; the second were given the identical workshop along with something extra: a special fifty-minute session that described how the brain grows when it's challenged. Within a semester the second group had significantly improved their grades and study habits. The experimenters didn't tell the teachers which group the kids were in, but the teachers could tell anyway. The teachers couldn't put their finger on it, but they knew something big had changed.

Also check How to Learn and Master Any Skill Twice as Fast, According to Science

  • Practice multiple parallel skills at once. The advantage of this method is that your brain doesn’t get comfortable or store information in your short-term memory. Instead, interleaving causes your brain to intensely focus and problem solve every step of the way, resulting in information getting stored in your long-term memory instead.
  • For example, one study, gave a collegiate baseball team extra batting practice and broke them up into three groups: a control group, a blocked group, and a random group. The blocked group faced a variety of pitches in a set order, and the other group encountered pitches randomly. After six weeks, researchers found that the random group improved 56.7%, while the blocked group only improved 24.8%. That’s a massive difference! And similar results have been replicated in other sports and classroom learning studies.
  • Plan your lessons in advance. Since randomization and spacing out lessons are crucial to the interleaving process, try planning when and what you want to cover in a lesson in advance.
  • Go back to basics. When we progress with a new skill, it’s easy to forget to practice older material. But going back over the basics is an integral part of the interlearning process. Doing so strengthens our brains and reinforces our long-term memory of a skill. It also has the added benefit of spacing out learning and giving our minds a break from taking on a new concept right away. This will result in higher and faster retention overall.
  • Keep track of your progress. Monitoring your results in a measurable way is the best way to stay motivated.
  • Break out of your comfort zone. When you realize that practice does not mean perfection, and that every step new towards finding a skill is a step forward (even if it seems like a step backwards), you’ll have the winning attitude to use interleaving to your advantage.