Monday, December 9, 2013

Nature versus Nurture via "The Talent Code"

As a music teacher, I have taught thousands of students over the past 12 years. Among those thousands are the small percentage of super-talented students, some of whom choose a career in music. These students have a love of music, an intrinsic motivation to constantly improve, and recognize that hard work pays off. No, they are not all music "prodigies." Their effortless ability is a result of passion and practice.

I recently read "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle. Being a person who witnesses this talent every year, I wanted to see the insight Coyle could bring to this process. Are there really prodigies? Or is it simply the result hard work and ambition?

Coyle found that these prodigies are simply people with a combination of intense desire and purposeful practice. These talented people, whether in art, sports, or academics, have a targeted focus, gather the necessary resources to make progress towards that focus, and practice purposefully & deeply to achieve the focus. The process is rather scientific.

"Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals." (page 15)

"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." (page 28)

"Deliberate practice is working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses." (page 80)

Ability is less about who or how long, than what and how much. As I read the book, I found many of Coyle's discoveries and connections to really make sense. Of course deep practice would result in greater skill! Of course the presentation of challenges instead of repetition creates better learning experiences!

"The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle." (page 31)

"Players touching the ball 600 percent more often learn far faster." (page 44)

Coyle consulted scientists who research and study the brain to simplify the process down to three steps:

  1. Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons.
  2. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increase signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
  3. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become. (page 51)

That makes complete sense. Those of us who have experienced this process, personally or through someone close to us, are more likely to understand. For example, I impress on my students that muscle-memory is a key component to improvement. Once the muscles can do these tasks automatically, the brain can then focus on more challenging tasks.

Coyle then gives three rules for encouraging this process to occur. These rules can be used personally or for coaching purposes. Being a music teacher, and teaching band, these are not completely foreign to what I do in the classroom.

  1. RULE ONE: Chunk it up. Look at the task as a whole, then divide it into the smallest possible chunks. Slow the action down and speed it up to learn the inner architecture. Eventually link them together in progressively larger groupings. (pages 124, 131)
  2. RULE TWO: Repeat it. Systematically fire the circuits required for the skill. (page 136)
  3. RULE THREE: Learn to feel it. Students don't like the "taste" of deep practice at first; eventually they begin to tolerate and even enjoy the experience. (page 143)

"...the deepest truth about deep practice: to get good, it's helpful to be willing, even enthusiastic, about being bad." (page 145)

For anyone to be willing to commit to deep practice, something has to motivate them. Coyle labels this Ignition, motivational fuel. "Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening." (page 154).

I know as a public school teacher, I wonder how to spark that ignition. Most of my students begin to play an instrument because they think it will be fun. After about 10 weeks, the realization that playing an instrument is work settles in... and they hit their first wall. I then work hard to re-ignite them and get them past this wall. And repeat this process whenever the next wall appears.

The moment I finished the final page of this book, my mind was swirling with information and ideas. These are the key adjustments I am making to my day-to-day "coaching" tactics in my classroom as a result of this book:

  1. I will impress upon my beginners that it is a long-term commitment. I will not say "if you continue;" I will speak in absolutes regarding the continuation of learning music. My change of mindset will affect the mindset of my students.
  2. I will be more creative in providing learning & practice opportunities that focus on challenges and not just repetition.
  3. I will recognize and commend skill achievement appropriately, since this leads to greater confidence which will encourage more risk-taking in efforts of gaining more skill. This affects my choice of words: "You really tried hard" and "That must have taken focus and energy to achieve."
  4. My "coaching" needs to be delivered in short bursts. STOP THE LECTURES, whether intentional or not!
  5. Make sure I mention to my students how the myelin process works, that skill is not just about natural talent (everyone does have natural aptitudes) but about what you are passionate about and  how you work towards your goal.