Teaching Opinion

“Teachers Need To Behave Like Johnny Appleseeds": An Interview With Daniel Coyle

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 08, 2013 9 min read
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Daniel Coyle is the author of The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. and its sequel, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills.

Many educators have read and applied aspects of his book to the classroom (as I have), and he agreed to answer a few questions. In the interview, Dan also invites educators to contribute their experiences to his next book.

I’ll be responding to last week’s question, What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a principal?, next Sunday in a multi-part series. There is still plenty of time to contribute your response.

Interview With Daniel Coyle

LF: You talk a lot about “deep practice"/"deliberate practice” and the 10,000 hour “rule” -- that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required in order to develop “world-class talent.” Can you describe what the elements of deliberate practice are, and also respond to recent critiques of the 10,000 hour rule?

Daniel Coyle:

Deep practice means doing three things: 1) chunking - which means breaking things down to their basic parts, then putting them together again in ever-larger groupings; 2) reaching just past the edge of your ability; 3) intensive repetition. When you combine these things, you literally change your brain by constructing new circuits, and making new connections.

In the book, I tell the story of Clarissa, a clarinet player who shows the power of deep practice in an experiment in which her practices were videotaped and analyzed. First she practices one song the normal “shallow” way, by playing it straight through, not noticing the mistakes. Then she practices the next song deeply, paying keen attention to errors, repeating, and chunking. According to the researcher, Clarissa accomplishes more in five minutes of deep practice than she would in an entire week of her shallow practice. Psychologists refer to this zone as the “Sweet Spot” because when you spend time there, your learning velocity increases so much.

The larger point of deep practice is realizing that mistakes aren’t verdicts, but rather the information you use to get better. They’re the navigation points we use to build the right connections. Struggling in the right way makes you smarter.

I think a lot of the critiques of the 10,000 hours stem from a basic misunderstanding that it’s some kind of a magic threshold - people think it means that anyone can be an expert if they just practice for 10,000 hours. But that’s silly, because it’s simply not true. Genes matter. Environments matter. Emotions matter. But above all, quality of practice matters.

To me, the takeaway of the 10,000-Hour rule is that it’s not about quantity - it’s about quality. Creating opportunities for high-quality practice is, by far, the most effective thing you can do to improve performance. Seemingly small changes in approach - moving to the edge of your ability - can vastly change performance, as it does in the case of Clarissa. For most of us, it’s not about 10,000 hours; it’s more about creating a great ten minutes. Then doing it again. And creating a space where you can turn this kind of progress into a daily habit.

LF: I was very interested in what you found about the relation between the initial commitment by students and the results of their practice. In other words, if students approached wanting to learn a task that they initially planned to use over the long-term, their practice results would be more effective than if a student didn’t have a long-term plan -- even if that student practiced for the same amount of time.

It seems to me that this is more evidence for the importance of teachers helping connect lessons to the interests, goals and dreams of their students, which would mean getting to know them. Do you think that is an accurate interpretation of the research you wrote about?

Daniel Coyle:

Absolutely. I love that study because it illustrates a profound truth that’s easily overlooked: education isn’t the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. When we feel a deep emotional connection, a purpose, a commitment - it unlocks vast amounts of unconscious energy. That’s what’s propelling the performance. They see a vision of their future selves, and are ignited.

For teachers, I think the lesson is that they need to behave like Johnny Appleseeds. To seek ways to create moments when the kids light up and tune in. To pay deep attention when a kid stares hard at something - that’s an incredibly important piece of information. Staring is the first step toward developing a passion.

LF: You write about the motivational impact it can have on students to feel a connection to someone who has been successful -- even if they just read that the person has the same birthday as they do. This seems to reinforce the importance of mentoring -- whether it is older students in a school mentoring younger ones, or college students coming back to a high school to talk about their success (in a previous interview, Adam Grant talked about starting a group called No Alumni Left Behind).

Can you talk a little more about what happens in that kind of situation?

Daniel Coyle:

We are social animals. When we get the opportunity to join an enchanted circle of people - whether it’s students, or athletes, or musicians - our brains light up like Christmas trees. I call it “filling the windshield” -- creating opportunities to stare, daily, at the people we wish to become.

When you examine the lives of many top performers (Mozart, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson), this happened by sheer serendipity - many were born into situations where they had the chance to stare, mimic, join these enchanted circles. The trick for most of us, then, is to not rely on serendipity, but rather seek ways to make these moments happen more often in the classroom.

It’s ironic - we’ve designed many of our schools according to the factory model, where kids are separated by ages, when in fact we should seek out ways to do the opposite. Montessori does a good job of finding ways to “fill the windshield.” So do the KIPP charter schools. When I visited one KIPP school in San Jose, CA, I asked the principal what day in the school year was the most motivating for the students. It turned out that the most effective day was a field trip where they took fourth- and fifth-graders to visit area colleges - to fill their windshields with images of the people they could become. On that day, the kids ignited, because they could connect the dots; they could connect with a vision of their future self.

LF: In light of the recent push to evaluate teachers based on the standardized test scores of their students, I think many educators are really going to be interested in what you discovered about so-called “average” teachers. You found that the “first” teachers of many talented students were described as average, but:

“These people are not average teachers...As Bloom and his researchers realized, they are merely disguised as average because their crucial skill does not show up on conventional measures of teaching ability. They succeed because they are tapping into the second element of the talent code: ignition. They are creating and sustaining motivation; they are teaching love. As [Benjamin] Bloom’s study summed up, ‘The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.’”

In K-12 teaching, of course, one never knows for sure in what grade or subject that kind of “ignition” can happen.

How do you think this finding should affect -- if you think it should affect -- the public debate about teacher evaluation?

Daniel Coyle:

Great question. I think it speaks to the real challenge of accurately evaluating teachers, and of developing new ways to show the incredible, lasting impact these “gateway teachers” have on their students. The key will be in finding new and innovative ways of measuring student motivation and commitment. I think it’ll be difficult, but not impossible.

LF: You write a lot about myelin and how people can create more of it in their brain as they learn and practice something regularly. Many of us are helping our students learn that they can make their brains stronger through learning something new, and that seems to enhance motivation. Can you talk a little bit about what myelin is and how it’s developed?

Daniel Coyle:

You probably remember the term “myelin sheath” from high school biology. Myelin functions like electrical tape for our brain circuits - wrapping and insulating the wires, so the signals don’t leak out. For years, myelin was thought to be inert. But it turns out that myelin grows - and grows in response to practice.

It works like this: When we repeat something over and over, the myelin on that particular brain circuit thickens, wrapping over and over. And when myelin gets thicker, our brains send signals far faster and more accurately. Those signals make up our thoughts and motions - whether it’s playing a violin or solving an algebra equation. The more myelin we earn, the better we become. As one neurologist told me, “Myelin is like broadband.”

And here’s the other thing: brain studies show that myelin grows proportionally to the number of hours practiced. That is, each intensive repetition earns you another wrap of myelin. Each session changes your brain to make it faster and more accurate. That’s what makes intensive practice so powerful.

LF: I was struck by what you wrote about myelin breaking down over thirty days -- that not practicing something for that period of time can result in a serious degradation of that skill. It seems that might relate to what is known in education as the “summer slide” -- when many students lose academic skills during that period. Can you talk a little more about what happens without regular practice?

Daniel Coyle:

As the father of four school-age kids, I know about summer slides. And from a neurological perspective, it makes perfect sense. Myelin works exactly like muscle - if you don’t provide it with stimulus and activity, it naturally degrades.

That’s why pro athletes do training camps; why musicians are addicted to daily practice (as one concert pianist famously said, “If I do not practice for one day, I notice. If I do not practice for two days, my wife notices. If I do not practice for three days, the world notices.”) Students are exactly the same, which is why we need to build environments (and academic schedules) that are aligned with the way the brain grows.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

I’m working on a new book about organizational culture - basically, how successful groups become successful by sending signals that create a sense of belonging and purpose. So if anybody has any stories they’d like to share about schools that do a good job of this, I’d love to hear them. My email is danieljcoyle17@gmail.com, or connect through my website at thetalentcode.com

Thanks, Dan!

If you liked this interview, you might also want to read ones that have appeared here with authors Adam Grant, Daniel Pink, Paul Tough, Charles Duhigg, Rafe Esquith and others.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this interview.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.