Training a Talented Human Race

Based on a recommendation via Mladen Jovanovic‘s reading list, I just read the book “Bounce” by Matthew Syed.  It is the best book on “talent” and skill development I’ve read, with some added bonus discussions at the end.  I highly recommend this book.

It also aligns nicely with my recent thoughts and posts on the education system in America and the values surrounding that system versus more successful systems (such as Finland’s).

Based on the book, and what we (and I) know about skill development, here’s what we need to do:

  • Teach with Play – Both physical and mental.  This is meant to generate excitement, engagement, motivation, and awareness.  The number one factor of becoming “expert” at a skill is long-term practice that constantly strives to achieve levels beyond current abilities.  Some children will differ in various levels of these regarding different tasks, which is why having multiple approaches to teaching subjects, and multiple teachers (who “specialize” in different styles) for one subject is so important.  In order to participate in that type of practice over a long period of time, one must be incredibly motivated.  Children (and most adults) are motivated by fun, success, and enjoyment.  A playful approach allows for all of those.  You also should play with variables (Teach variously and consistently, below) and with failure (teach to succeed through failure).
  • Teach to Succeed, through Failure – in order to succeed, you must be willing to fail “early and often.”  Failure means you’re trying.
  • Teach Variously – Multiple perspectives on a skill help the performer to stay interested, find new angles, and use their creativity to problem-solve.  This is also related to the idea that perception guides learning.  Teaching new perspectives on a topic enriches perceptual ability.
  • Teach Consistently – Consistency in approach or form allows the learner to experience precisely where their technique is lacking, and to make adjustments.  Without consistency, one cannot know where or why one is not achieving the desired result.
  • Teach Awareness in Focused and Disperse Concentration – Being “too focused” is as bad as being entirely unfocused.  It is best to teach the skill of both, and of alternating between both.
  • Teach in Teams – Cooperative team-learning creates an atmosphere of excitement, in which the “unmotivated” are often swept up in the energy generated by the group.  This has been demonstrated in many research studies.
  • Coach Individually – Focus on precision adjustments to a person’s skill individually, without team or peer involvement (unless those peers have the same or very similar skill issues).
  • Coach Equally (and Teach Equality) – It should go without saying that cooperative/team learning should emphasize the idea that everyone has equal potential for excellence.  Coaching equally teaches students by example that equality is valued.  Teaching equality means that students look out for one another.
  • Praise Hard Work, Practice, Play, Teamwork, etc. – Praising success as a result of “talent” leads to disinterest and failure.  Syed points to Carol Dweck’s research showing that children who simply receive praise for a job well done as a result of talent, rather than of hard work, eventually lose interest in performing at all.
  • Teach Teachers – At some point in a student’s learning, they should be required to teach others.  This is relatively standard in many martial arts models, where senior students often take over for the master in teaching newcomers.  It is partly meant to preserve the time of the master and allow the master to focus on teaching advanced students.  It is also meant to give the senior student perspective both on the process of teaching (so that they may become teachers someday), and to give the senior student perspective on their own learning process.
  • Find a Divine Mission – Whatever it is, at some point in everyone’s life, they need to believe in something far greater than themselves supporting them, helping them, and awaiting them.  This is the purpose of a “Vision” statement in business-speak.  The Vision is the nigh-impossible goal.  What business-speak lacks is the grounding in an Idea that can sustain the path to that vision.  What God helps you?  What Force lies behind your sustained energy?  It is impossible to continue, at times, without this.  Visualization practices come from this source.
  • Teach Belief In One’s Self - This is an immersive practice when it comes to performance.  The individual must feel fully in themselves, and fully capable of achieving their goal.  After performance, focus on what was done well and right.  Taken too far, this is arrogance.  Taught within a team framework, and with the value of equality, and through praise of effort, this becomes an invaluable tool in life.
  • Teach that the “Impossible” is Possible – Focus on believing in achievement of desired goals is possible, while maintaining a skills-based approach in the present moment.
  • Teach Relaxation – Both in the sense of teaching relaxation practices, and in the sense of being relaxed in movement or skill execution.
  • Teach Intensity, rather than Aggression or Emotion – Intensity means the heightening of effort, focus, and often, relaxation.  Intensity is singlemindedness of purpose.  Aggression and emotion almost always result in tension (wasted energy) or a lack of focus (wasted effort).
  • Teach Continuity of Play and Effort – The “letdown” after success for many athletes is the result of a build-up of the importance of that particular event.  Particularly when the athlete or student has the idea that they are going to win anyway, success in those events can seem anticlimactic.  Part of good teaching is that there is no “endgame.”  The game is infinite – it goes on forever.  There might be individual matches, tests, assignments, etc., but learning is never “complete.”
  • Teach Body-, Nature-, and Other-Awareness and Connection – If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know this is one of the big ones, to me.

In one chapter, Syed quotes tennis coach Nick Bollettieri’s credo:

“Every endeavor pursued with passion produces a successful outcome regardless of the result.  It is not about winning or losing—rather, the effort put forth in producing the outcome.  The best way to predict the future is to create it – therfore, we believe we have the best training methods to help each athlete achieve their dreams and goals and ultimately reach their ability level in the arenas of sports and life.” (pg. 95)

I think this should be true for any human in any endeavor.

I discussed this in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating here.  “Talent identification” expert Richard Gagne identifies four distinct areas of human ability that appear to have little carryover between one another.  They are (with my own addition of a fifth):

Intellectual – Reasoning (inductive/deductive), verbal, spatial, memory, judgement, observation
Creative – Inventiveness, problem-solving, imagination, originality, retrieval fluency, skills/techne
Socioaffective – Intelligence, perceptiveness, communication, empathy, tact, influence, leadership, persuasion.
Sensorimotor – Sensory – visual, auditory, olfcatory, gustatory, kinesthetic/proprioceptive, rhythmic, spatial, temporal, temperate, vestibular, interoception (internal awareness); and Motor – strength, endurance, reflex, coordination, internal force control, external force control.
SOCIOCULTURAL – Social – behavioral norms, acceptances and consequences, friend and peer-group interaction, social adaptability, responsiveness to social signs (warnings, reprimands, nonverbal cues), tolerance for frustration/failure, relationships with family; Cultural – customs, beliefs, rituals, values.

Gagne’s map:

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2 thoughts on “Training a Talented Human Race

  1. I am reading Bounce now and enjoying it. Just finished reading The Talent Code, which Syed references frequently, by Daniel Coyle. Like Bounce, The Talent Code, persuasively demonstrates that expert skill is learned through attentive repetition rather than something some lucky people are born with. In discussing the two books with people I have found about half the people enthusiastically embrace the practice paradigm and the other half argue for inborn talent. Interesting.

  2. Yeah, funny stuff, isn't it Derrick? I've had the same experience. To the point of a real "well we'll just have to agree to disagree" conclusion with a friend of mine who insisted that she "can't" sing, and wouldn't be able to no matter how long she practiced…oh well, self-fulfilling prophecies based on stubborn self-opinions can't be countered!

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