Motivation, Practice, and Brain Science

I just returned from a talk author Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown, gave at another elementary school nearby. He spent the day with the students and faculty,  shared time with them at their faculty meeting, and then gave his talk to parents and others who were interested.

I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list. Wanting to always grow and be a better teacher, are of interest to me.

He talked about female Russian tennis players who seemed to enter the world stage from nowhere, just like female Korean golfers have done recently. Amazingly successful singers in Dallas and Brazilian soccer players were also mentioned. What was it that made these people so talented? It wasn’t that there was something inherent about their nationalities.

Coyle told a story of Simon Clifford, an elementary school soccer coach from Leeds, who didn’t believe that it was a region, climate, or genetics alone that produced very talented soccer players, so he headed to Brazil and noticed that almost all the kids played soccer, but a variation of it involving a very small, bounceless ball in a small court. Well Clifford went back to Leeds and gave these children those same balls to play with and it wasn’t long before he started producing some key talent in soccer.

Coyle related that it wasn’t just the practice, but the kind of practice that mattered. The kind of stuff that made you work, even for a millisecond was much more useful than practicing something you took for granted and just glossed over. And when you practice in a way where you make mistakes, slow down to fix those mistakes, and continue the cycle of failing and reaching, this is where you grow. Not just in what you’re learning, but you grow myelin. The stuff that covers your neurons. The more myelin you grow, the more efficient you become at what you’re learning, and the better you become at what you do, be it teaching, golf, or playing the clarinet.

Another factor in growing talent was motivation and Coyle noted that it could be a number of things, but it was usually people – he called it a windshield. Younger siblings have older siblings they want to become and therefore are intrinsically motivated to practice and keep at it. These windshields can be very subtle too. One school, Kipp takes their students to college campuses for a day. They just go, look around, and explore, but at some point, that becomes their motivation. The students want to be that college student and as a result, work at it.

On his blog, Coyle mentions Doug Lemov’s book about effective teaching and when he asked effective teachers to show them their lesson plans, they didn’t have any. They start over, rip their old ones up, try new things, or re-invent the wheel. They look at the minute errors and try to fix them through practice.

He cited Carol Dwek’s work on Mindsets, and mentioned two important things for teachers and parents. 1) Pay attention to what your child is staring at. Staring is learning. 2) Praise effort, not skill. He commented on the school he was visiting as one with a growth mindset.

Coyle is another strong believer of collaboration, as he believes it helps us all hone our talents. Coyle mentioned that it’s a wonderful time to be learning more about the brain and how it learns, but we are only scratching the surface. As a friend of mine put it, just think of Galileo looking through a telescope for the first time and discovering things about our solar system. That’s where we are with brain science. We know quite a bit, but there is much more to learn. Who thought myelin had anything to do with it?

As for taking things for granted, something that both Dan Coyle and Sir Ken Robinson says we need to avoid in order to find our passion, Coyle closed with this joke: Two young fish swam by an older fish going the other way. “The water’s great. Isn’t it?” said the old fish to the two younger ones. After they passed one of the younger fish said to the other one, “What’s water?”

It’s often the small, seemingly insignificant things that parents and teachers miss. Let’s find ways to avoid missing those things and get those neurons firing and that myelin growing. Coyle, like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers does not dismiss genetics and talent, but says we pay way too much attention to the notion of  ‘natural talent.’

Here’s a 4 min. video of Coyle speaking about his book.



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