Good Books: The Talent Code

-by Jack M. Jose

Usain Bolt ignited: "People say I am a legend, but I am not. Not until I have defended my Olympic title. Then I will be a legend. That is what I have decided."
Usain Bolt ignited: “People say I am a legend, but I am not. Not until I have defended my Olympic title. Then I will be a legend. That is what I have decided.”

Usain Bolt. Katie Ledecky. Michael Phelps. The US Women’s Gymnastics team.  In this Olympic season we collectively pause to contemplate greatness and excellence as the world’s best athletes compete in carefully adjudicated sports, with times measured to hundredths of a second, and the title of “World’s Best” at stake. We examine Usain Bolt’s long, muscular frame and we could easily dismiss him as “born to run.” Michael Phelps’ extraordinarily long reach aids him as he propels himself through the water. Simone Biles’ compact build seems made for the floor routine. Are they born to it? What does it take to be elite?

10,000 hours.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell outlined a common factor among leading innovators, athletes, and experts in a variety of fields – 10,000 hours of focused practice. This research reinforced and depended in no small amount on the work of Anders Ericsson, a brain scientist whose research suggested the same correlation between practice time and success.  While not simple, the number at least seems straightforward. Measurable. More like a goal than a mystery.

As educators, charged with aiding the most natural human process of learning, we turned this 10,000 number over in our heads. 10,000 minutes. How many hours was that? And in school days? Weeks? How exactly to get to this goal? 6 hours a day, 180 days a year. Well, simple: we could get there by the middle of 10th grade with every student … if we remained focused on only one subject. And so, to try and do this for every student, the work seems impossible. Frustratingly, Gladwell’s evidence is largely anecdotal. There are naysayers, like the author of this Business Insider article who claimed to “destroy” Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.

And there are other authors who, as with any innovative and popular idea, had been researching in the same field and explored the notion further. One of those authors is Daniel Coyle, whose book The Talent Code unpacks the notion of being born with certain talent. He concludes, in the subtitle of his book, “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.”

As with Gladwell’s book, Coyle’s uses prominent athletes along with somewhat lesser known musicians and other experts. And while he recognizes the importance of time in improving skills, he explores areas where not just one athlete or team, but instead many, have achieved excellence and prominence. These people do not have more time than others available to them. There is something powerful in how they use that time. Gladwell recognized that important detail in his book, that excellence is not something to be stumbled upon at the end of 10,000 hours of just any sort of practice, and wrote an article to dispel the idea. Instead, these authors understand that you have to be working on a skill at the edge of the student’s abilities. The area that Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” where our skills are being challenged and our work is improving in speed and accuracy. An area which, not coincidentally I believe, has all the characteristics of the conditions of “flow” as researched and explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Jeff Brokamp, Principal of Walnut Hills High School, by many measures the best public high school in Ohio and an annual member of the US News and World Report’s national best schools list, feels that this book has an important message for educators. “Every teacher should read this,” he told me. I replied that I think everyone who works with learners should read it. Subsequently, I have shared it with my coaches and recommended it to teachers who have asked how to improve their practice. Here is why I share it with those who are interested in getting the most out of their limited time with learners.

Coyle breaks the “talent code” by declaring it a process of 3 key parts. Helpfully, these are all controllable factors: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. While the book seems targeted at coaching athletics, it has powerful implications for the academic classroom.

Deep Practice

In deep practice, the student enters a “highly targeted, error-focused process” of stopping and focusing on repairing small errors. Whether it is a clarinetist working – as if from a blueprint – on getting each note right in a challenging passage, or a pilot working on the skill of instrument-only flying in the “Blue Box”, deep practice focuses narrowly on a specific skill. A quick illustration of the concept comes from Brazil’s soccer team, where players – due to a lack of resources including soccer fields – practice in a highly confined space, using soccer balls that are smaller and heavier. In this way, the unintended consequence of insufficient resources is a mastery of the ball handling skills required to out-maneuver an opponent on the field. While much of the game of soccer is spread out on the open field, these pivotal moments of defender vs ball-handler really determine the outcome of the game by allowing a team to control possession and set up more shots and better shots on goal.

Deep Practice in the Classroom

In the academic classroom, a math teacher can emulate the deep practice model by breaking down a math process into its component parts. If a particular step slows down or confounds one or more or her students, the teacher can provide practice just on that step. Instead of having students run over the open fields portion of the questions, the parts they already have mastered, wasting precious classroom time, the teacher can isolate many examples of those particular steps. The student can enter deep practice by practicing, over and over, the specific skill they lack. This intense practice speeds growth and maximizes the little time we have.

This can also happen by using the concept of writing across the curriculum where every student is asked to write in response to every question in every class. This creates additional practice where some students would otherwise simply tune out or attend to something other than the question at hand.  In a typical classroom, a teacher covering a concept can pose a question to the group and have only a few hands go up. The response might be to call on one of those whose hands are up. A more skilled teacher might recognize that he has called on those students already and ask for additional volunteers. A master teacher will use the concept of cold-calling and writing to learn to ensure deep practice. Here’s how that works. For the key concepts in a lesson, instead of calling out a question to ultimately be answered by one student, the master teacher asks every student to write their response. This creates almost universal engagement with the question. If students then pair up and share those answers with each other, then offer their own or their partner’s response to the whole group, each child has twice engaged with the question and possible answers. When shown or guided to the correct answer by a skilled teacher, the student can refer to their written notes and their conversation – their deep practice. The work is rewarded with the right answer, and they have put themselves in a position to understand why it is right, or at least to remember it better. This process takes a little longer than the traditional call and singular response, but increasing participation from 1 to 28 students in the same period of time makes it far more efficient.

Ignition

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo

There are three steps to help someone move from merely understanding deep practice to helping it happen. Collectively Coyle calls these “ignition.” Some children arrive in the world with a “rage to master” a new skill or skills, according to the appropriately-named psychologist Ellen Winner. Perhaps all children arrive with it, and their environment either nurtures that or stifles it. However, creating the conditions for igniting learning is not a mystery. Through all the examples of individual passion and genius like that of world-record holder Katie Ledecky, Coyle sees evidence of three common steps available when ignition finally happens

  • Chunking and slowing it down – the best learners and masters of skills find ways to master small steps within the larger skill. In reading, we master the sounds of letters even as we are memorizing common words as a whole. Together these skills help us read for understanding and attack new words we have not seen. Again, with a musician as an example, rather than practicing the whole piece over and over again, chunking means breaking the work into parts, then focusing in on the areas that are difficult, and not wasting time with the parts already mastered. Additionally, the masters slow a skill down to understand its component parts. While they do this, myelin is still forming, and they are understanding the pieces and how they fit together. This way they can focus on eliminating errors, and understand the blueprint of the larger whole.
  • Repeating it – the deep practice model calls for a lot of targeted practice. Over and over again. You hear it from the greatest athletes, as well as researchers and artists. They are practicing their skills, researching their fields, over and over again. Typically about 10 years’ worth of practice is what it takes to become elite in the field.
  • Feeling it – Coyle is quick to point out that none of the actual masters in their fields with whom he spoke used the words “easy”, “natural”, or “genius” to describe what they had accomplished. Instead they described their practice using words like “alert”, “edge”, “focus”, “mistake” and “repeat.” In short, even in practice they were working toward a goal and feeling the effort closing the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be.

Ignition then happens when these parts are in place, and the artist, athlete, or academician sees themselves as engaging in a task to achieve a long-term goal. Perhaps they see someone in the field who they want to emulate, or they have a life goal of achievement in a certain area. A commonality among the champions is that they knew they wanted to be champions, and they knew that it would take a long time. And, most importantly, they identified with someone who had accomplished what they wanted. They knew they belonged at the top.

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.

Ignition in the classroom

Ignition then has clear implications in the classroom, closely tied with research by Carol Dweck in the area of Mindset. Students need to understand the work in front of them, be willing and able to engage in the work of targeted growth, and, importantly, see themselves as capable of being successful over time.

Additionally, students benefit from seeing how they belong to something bigger and more important than themselves. In the classroom, we can help students feel part of something bigger by telling the story of our classroom or school, and particularly of students who achieved lofty goals who emerged through these same classrooms and hallways. We can also build connections to professionals in the field through intersessions and other real-world experiences, and innovative projects such as Gamble Montessori’s Senior Project (to be featured here soon.) In this way, we can demystify success and expertise, and put it within range of every student.

Master Coaching

In the hotbeds of success explored by Coyle, he saw another common theme: a master coach. Coyle watched a master coach, Hans Jesson, walk two students through cello lessons. Coyle asked, after the lesson, which of the cellists were better. Coyle believed the first was much better and was surprised when Jensson struggled with the question. “It’s difficult to say. When I teach, I give everyone everything. What happens after that, who can know?” Basketball Coach John Wooden is the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. When his coaching style was explored through scripting and breaking down every audible comment, his coaching was found to be lacking in overt inspiration, and instead was infused with practice. An article by two researchers even found that he had a particular sequence of events he used so often they dubbed it a “Wooden”: he showed the player the right way to do something, imitated the wrong way they had just done it, and then he showed them the right way again.

Master coaches have what Coyle calls a “matrix” – a vast understanding of the task and what is needed to accomplish it well. Also, they have a perceptiveness about the needs for each of the individuals with whom they work. Third, they possess what he calls a “probing, strategic impatience,” where they interrupt practice to strengthen specific things they see need work. Finally, they possess a “theatrical honesty” with which they point out mistakes almost as if each mistake was the end of the world, then transform that moment into a chance for new learning, which is equally theatrically praised.

Master Coaching in the Classroom

It is the work of the teacher to become a master coach in the classroom. Meet students where they are, through pre-assessments and close examination of work to determine their level, then using differentiation and targeted practice to help them continually work within their zone of proximal development. That is – they need to become experts not just in their area of teaching, but also at seeing where their students are currently, and how to move them forward.

A reading teacher might work with a student reading aloud, inviting them back to the word they just mispronounced, or even back to the start of the sentence to make sure they read it at a fast enough speed, or with sufficient fluency, to get meaning from it. One student might get assistance with pronunciation and decoding, while another might get assistance with sentence inflection.

Most importantly, a master teacher can forge a personal connection of trust and love with his students. This happens through hard work, masquerading as effortless “being there” for students. Thus, building relationships become the fundamental first step of learning.

You know we worked harder than you. (Author's paraphrase.)
You know we worked harder than you. (Author’s paraphrase.)

The Brain Science of Deep Practice and Master Coaching

Every signal the brain sends travels along a path of neurons. That path is coated and reinforced by a recently-understood substance called myelin. The more the pathway is used, the more it is reinforced. This is true for every skill and every action, whether the action is correct or not. This, of course, has implications for all of our actions. As a teacher, it has important implications for teaching and re-teaching as a primary tool to address not just classroom errors but disciplinary matters as well.

Deep practice of specialized, broken down skills develops myelin in important information and skills that will need to be recalled. In this way, practices in the classroom that create multiple chances to learn a skill, such as deep practice, will physically change the brain of the student. Practicing the correct skills correctly, can permanently improve students’ acquisition of the target skill and related skills. If we can expand to an entire classroom answering a question, this is 28 times the amount of growth we would get in a traditional classroom. If we can target the practice to a specific skill and cram 6 or 8 practices of the skill instead of 2 practices of the whole process, then this is growth at a factor of 3 to 4 times the traditional classroom. That’s a lot of myelin, laying the groundwork for a superhighway of correct skills.

Master coaching means, in short, understanding which pathways are not yet developed. Looking closely at student skills and addressing deficiencies promptly and accurately helps ensure that the right pathways are being formed. This is why it is important that we correct students’ grammar at every opportunity, and teach them to make eye contact and give a firm handshake at every greeting. This is also why at Gamble we use the Teach Like a Champion skill of No Opt Out, where a student who gets the answer wrong has a chance to hear the correct answer, then must give the correct answer verbally to the teacher. The right action reinforces the learning. We are creating powerful habits that sometimes are working to erase older powerful habits. The master coach does not pass up an opportunity to help rebuild it the correct way.

In a way, we are all called to be John Wooden in the classroom. However, the work has been demystified. In order to create superhighways of excellent practice, we need to utilize deep practice – chunk the work, practice it over and over, and help students understand when it is right. We need to help students see the value of their work and identify with those who use the work in a valuable way in our society. We need to build deep relationships of trust with students, and we need to provide them very specific interventions at the time when they need it. Most of us do most of this just about every day.

What area seems most natural for you? Which area will be the biggest struggle? We welcome your comments.