Tag Archives: skill development

Practice Does Matter!!!

We are works in progress: And we are products of our past. This is true of us as individuals and as a species. Sometimes we can find ourselves thinking that change, growth, improvement or progress gets stalled or stopped. We doubt that we, as individuals or as groups, can do much more than just become resigned to stagnation.

We doubt that we can get out the rut we are in. We are pretty sure that we are not going to reach our aspirations because the journey is taking too long and the path is “crazy” confusing and unclear. We are not sure what to try to “get better” at so we can achieve the desired progress.

I have enjoyed reading and thinking about the book: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. From my point of view Coyle makes the case that continuing to develop, change, grow, and improve is not just possible – it is how biology works.  It is not an accident when we get good at something.  In fact, we are hard wired to be able to adapt, change and evolve as individuals – and by extension as groups.  He also reinforces my belief that effort and intentionality make a difference.

Here are some of Coyle’s thoughts:

Nature/nurture has been a terrifically popular model because it’s clear and dramatic, and it speaks to a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But when it comes to explaining human talent, it has a slight problem: it’s vague to the point of meaninglessness. Thinking that talent comes from genes and environment is like thinking that cookies come from sugar, flour, and butter. It’s true enough, but not sufficiently detailed to be useful. To get beyond the outmoded nature/nurture model, we need to begin with a clear picture of how genes actually work.

Genes are not cosmic playing cards. They are evolution tested instruction books that build the immensely complicated machines that are us. They contain the blueprints, literally written in nucleotides, to construct our minds and bodies in the smallest detail. The task of design and construction is hugely complex but essentially straightforward: the genes instruct the cells to make the eyelash like this, the toenail like that.

When it comes to behavior, however, genes are forced to deal with a unique design challenge. Human beings move around through a big, varied world. They encounter all sorts of dangers, opportunities, and novel experiences. Things happen quickly, which means that behavior—skills—need to change quickly. The challenge is, how do you write an instruction book for behavior? How do our genes, sitting quietly inside our cells, help us adapt to an ever-changing, ever-dangerous world?

To help address this problem, our genes have evolved to do a sensible thing: they contain instructions to build our circuitry with preset urges, proclivities, and instincts. Genes construct our brains so that when we encounter certain stimuli— a tasty meal, rotting meat, a stalking tiger, or a potential mate—a factory-loaded neural program kicks into gear, using emotions to guide our behavior in a useful direction. We feel hunger when we smell a meal, disgust when we smell rotten meat, fear when we see a tiger, desire when we see a potential mate. Guided by these preset neural programs, we navigate toward a solution.

That strategy works well for creating behaviors to deal with rotten meat and potential mates. After all, writing instructions to build an urge-circuit is relatively simple: if X,then Y. But what about creating complex higher behaviors, like playing the saxophone or Scrabble? As we’ve seen, higher skills are made of million-neuron chains working together with exquisite millisecond timing. The question of acquiring higher skills is really a question of design strategy. What’s the
best strategy for writing instructions to build a machine that can learn immensely complicated skills?

One obvious design strategy would be for the genes to prewire for the skill. The genes would provide detailed step-by-step instructions to build the precise circuits needed to perform the desired skill: to play music, or juggle, or do calculus.

When the right stimulus came along, all the prebuilt wiring would connect up and start firing away, and the talent would appear: Babe Ruth starts whacking homers, Beethoven starts composing symphonies. This design strategy would seem to make sense (after all, what could be more straightforward?), but in fact it has two big problems. First, it’s expensive, biologically speaking. Building those elaborate circuits takes resources and time, which have to come at the expense of some other design feature. Second, it’s a gamble with fate. Prewiring to create a genius software programmer doesn’t help if it’s 1850; and prewiring for a genius blacksmith would be useless today. In the space of a generation, or a few hundred miles, certain higher skills flip from being crucial to being trivial and vice versa.

To put it simply, prewiring a million-wire circuit for a complex higher skill is a stupid and expensive bet for genes to make. Our genes, however, having survived the gauntlet of the past few million years, aren’t in the business of making stupid and expensive bets. (Other genes might have been, but they’re long gone by now, along with the lineages that carried them.)*

Now let’s consider a different design strategy. Instead of prewiring for specific skills, what if the genes dealt with the skill issue by building millions of tiny broadband installers and distributing them throughout the circuits of the brain? The broadband installers wouldn’t be particularly complicated—in fact, they’d all be identical, wrapping wires with insulation to make the circuits work faster and smoother. They would work according to a single rule: whatever circuits are fired most and most urgently, are the ones where the installers will go. Skill circuits that are fired often will receive more broadband; skills that are fired less often, with less urgency, will receive less broadband. Pages 69 – 71

In this multifaceted world where forward progress often seems slow or stagnated: Where change often appears to be minimal or retro – There is a reasonable path toward developing and becoming more able to contribute in these complex times.

These are ‘our times’. We, if we want to be contributors, need to be willing to grow and develop ourselves. That means we have to be willing to “do things” poorly at first – so over time – we might do those same things with more elegance, grace and effectiveness.

What kinds of “things” might we want to get better at? That is a good question for each of us to sort out and answer. Here is my vision of what “things” we should consider being willing to “do” enough to improve our practice.

Engaging – reaching out and truly interacting with- others across differences.
Listening deeply to others by truly ‘seeking to understand, as Covey encouraged.
Collaborating with others to reach outcomes embraced by all.
Seeking the common good, as opposed to seeking to ‘win’ while others ‘lose”.

As Coyle suggestioned in The Talent Code: ”Whatever circuits are fired most and most urgently, are the ones where the installers will go. Skill circuits that are fired often will receive more broadband; skills that are fired less often, with less urgency, will receive less broadband.” So, the circuits that will help us, as a species, to get better at the four dispositions and behaviors I just mentioned are the ones we need to be “firing frequently”. Practice does matter!!!

The_Talent_Code

 

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Learning is About Enhancing Brain Pathways

living_circuts_Whatever the ability is, it is located in the brain.  So, when we pick up a dime from the table – that is a neural activity.  When we really focus our listening as we experience a beloved concert – we are activating and working our brain.  So for anyone of us to stretch or grow our ability in any way – the brain is a big part of that growth.

Growth means to deepen your knowledge, increase the effectiveness of your performances and/or shape your dispositions.  Personal growth is about you intentionally working at increasing your own growth at your own “edges”.  And, any growth you make becomes portable and it shows up where you are.  Because it is part of you, it is rooted.

In this post I’ll be sharing information form The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle (2009).  This book explains a how ‘talent’ is grown by looking at how our brains work.  Coyle reports”

Useful Brain Science Insight Number 1:

All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibers.  Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapses. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a signal through those chains of nerve fibers to your muscles.  Each time you practice anything – sing a tune, swing a club, read this sentence – a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of like a string of Christmas lights.

Useful Brain Science Insight Number 2:

The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it.   We are built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind.  This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons. It also creates a powerfully convincing illusion: a skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.

These two insights – skills as brain circuits and automaticity – create a paradoxical combination: we’re forever building vast, intricate circuits, and we’re simultaneously forgetting that we built them.  (Pages 36, 37 and 38)

So, if you want to get better at throwing a baseball, thinking more abstractly, dancing the jig, creating homemade birthday cards or developing your ability to communicate: with individuals, with groups, with subordinates, and/or with those you report to then – find your edge and start trying to throw that ball or dance that jig!  Growing, developing and becoming are not passive or lucky ‘brain events’.

For a person to grow and develop that person needs to go to his or her ‘edge’ of the skill, disposition, knowledge and/or understanding and they will need to work through the disequilibrium that comes from moving beyond the ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’.  So, learning, growing and developing surely is a courageous journey.  Whether it is a song you are learning on your clarinet or a new way of actively listening deeply to the members of your family.

Coyle explains that “struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.  Or, 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 realizing it.”  (page 18)

A person has to be willing to “address” his or her “growth edges” if he or she wants to change and grow.  Coyle has reported the science behind this.  And he shares how it is that our brains respond to practice, when we are ‘operating at the edges’: To do that he tells the story of myelin.

You are likely asking: What is myelin? Here is how Coyle explains where myelin fits into learning.

“(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of fibers.  (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases 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 32) he sums things up this way: “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.  The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.” (page 33)

Myelin is “universal: everyone can grow it, most swiftly during childhood but also throughout life. It’s indiscriminate: its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical.  It’s imperceptible: we can’t see it or feel it, and we can sense its increase only by its magical-seeming effects.  Most of all, however, myelin is important because it provides us with a vivid new model for understanding skill.  Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.” (page 6)

So, learning is about enhancing brain pathways to be open and ready for use.  Learning is about putting in time in ways that stretch us. And as we stretch we need to try to process our way to higher progress. These are the rules.  These rules are not to be ignored.  Working through the challenges at our growth edges is how we progress.

“All skills, all language, all music, all movements, are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules.” ~ Dr. George Bartozokis

Learn About Others by Gently Probing

Relationships grow when people learn about and appreciate each other. I believe that many of us can benefit from being very intentional about reaching out and getting to know each other in our work places, communities and even families.

Edgar H. Schein in his new book: Humble Inquiry: the Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (2013) writes, “Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.”

Schein states that not all questions are equivalent.  He has come to believe that we need to learn a particular form of questioning that he first called “Humble Inquiry” in Edgar H. Schein’s earlier book, Helping (2009) and Humble Inquiry   he defines as follows:

Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Listening to understand and appreciate.  That makes sense to me.  I don’t think it is an easy thing to get good at and I also think it is worth getting good at!  I believe that we and generations to come will benefit from co-creation of ideas, plans, solutions, and futures.

Schein’s book, Humble Inquiry may help people to gain awareness and dispositions related to gentle and thoughtful probing as we getting to know those around us.

Here are links to other posts I have written related to getting better as listeners and developing communities and thoughtful conversation:

Listening>turn taking

Food for thought related to the potential power of listening

A Community of Thought

Engaging in Conversations where Transformation has the Potential of Occurring

Forging the Future by Effectively and Honestly Working Across Differences

I hope to probe some thinking and possible discussions stimulated by excerpts from Giants: the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer, 2008.

The following text is from the book jacket.  It helps to set the stage for the quote you will be asked to consider and respond to.

Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were preeminent self-made men of their time.  In this masterful dual biography, award-winning Harvard University scholar John Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these two giants during a major shift in cultural history, when men rejected the status quo and embraced new ideals of personal liberty.  As Douglass and Lincoln reinvented themselves and ultimately became friends, they transformed America.

Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal schooling, and became the nation’s greatest president.  Douglass spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling – in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write – and became one of the nation’s greatest writers and activists, as well as a spellbinding orator and messenger of audacious hope, the pioneer who blazed the path traveled by future African-American leaders.

 At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln invited Douglass into the White House.  Lincoln recognized that he needed Douglas to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union; Douglass realized that Lincoln’s shrewd sense of public opinion would serve his own goal of freeing the nation’s blacks. ~ Quoted from the Book Jacket of Giants: the parallel lives of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

John Eaton (a chaplain who organized freedmen) considered Lincoln’s friendship with Douglass a testament to the president’s bipartisan diplomacy.  One of the president’s great skills, he said, was “in handling the men who were inclined to find fault with his policy,” Eaton had no way of knowing that Lincoln had developed his skill on the Illinois frontier with adversaries ranging from Jack Armstrong to Stephen Douglas.  “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” He had declared twenty-two years earlier.  The doctrine had served him well, for he had done exactly that with countless blacks.

Douglass could befriend Lincoln because the president had finally converted to his abolition cause.  He too had remained faithful to his principle of friendship, which depended upon a shared cause.  The two men needed each other.  Lincoln needed Douglass to help him save the Union, and he served Douglass’s own goal of freeing the slaves.  At their August 1864 meeting both men recognized that these twin goals were mutually reinforcing.

But their friendship also hinged on their capacity to forgive.  As self-made men who continually transformed themselves, Douglass and Lincoln understood that former enemies may become future friends and vice versa.  They refused to see themselves as fixed or static.  In order to achieve transformation, they needed to forgive their former enemies of wrongdoing and credit them with the potential for change.  Their faith in the power of forgiveness led to the possibility of rapprochement and gave them the strength continue evolving.  (pages 291-292)

Something to think about:

There are countless situations in a career as a leader that stimulate growth.  Think through the lens of the probe below about any of the times you have developed as a person or a leader.

Think about (and share by posting, if you wish) yourself as a leader/person who has:

forged friendships with those you disagree with,

demonstrated the capacity to forgive,

sees yourself as a self-made woman or man,

sees yourself as continually transforming or evolving yourself,

refused to see yourselves as fixed or static, and/or

found that in order for you to achieve transformation – you have needed to forgive your former antagonists of wrongdoing and credit them with the potential for change.

Giants

Successful Education Systems Make Education A Priority

Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Lessons from PISA for the United States

Here is a link to the report.    http://www.oecd.org/pisa/46623978.pdf Warning it is long. It compare the the US to countries across the world.

I find it a very interesting read.

And I have specific idea for you to consider to narrow your focus down from the almost 300 page document.

I am interested in the reading results.  You might want to look at pages 26 through 30 to set the stage for your thinking by viewing some of the comparison information and graphs.

Then focus in on page 30 Figure 2.2 and read the seven levels of proficiency in reading (as defined by this international organization) and try to place yourself among the seven.  And then think about these questions:

  • What value is there to you and your future (or the future of your children) to think deeply about this inter national  reading proficiency description?
  • Think about specific behaviors you can pursue that will likely advance your (or your children’s) level of proficiency in reading.
  • Do you sense that when PISA describes reading they are focusing on comprehension and critical thinking?
  • What kind of thinker are you  when you read?
  • What kinds of thinkers are your children when they read?

PISA_11_with_Attribution_I believe that it is not about Michigan in isolation and that it is about the children Michigan educates and how we educate them.

Do we have a world view?

Do we see the need to be successful in teaching all young people?

Do we want today’s students to be players in a world economy?

I would still be in Third Grade

PISA_With_attribution

I am not happy to report that if the law Michigan is considering passing which would keep third graders in third grade until they learn to read would mean I might still be there.

That is true because I was a non reader in third grade.  And more third grade would have likely just led to me being more unhappy, more full of doubt, more worried and bigger a year later.  In fact, since I wouldn’t have learn by more ‘drilling’ I may have not more on the next year.

The thought pains me to think about.

At sixty-five, with three college degrees, I look back and can see no good that could come from a retention decision like this.

I do agree with PISA that the best thing that could have happened for me would have been to help you learn reading the first time around.

Here is a great 12 minute YouTube video – Measuring student success around the world

Watching this might open our eyes to the big picture of literacy and how the United States is doing and what makes sense and what doesn’t for moving forward.