The Talent Code

Someday I’m going to compile my own personal list of books that everyone who wants to homeschool should read, regardless of homeschooling style or philosophy. One of those books is going to be The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. Simply, this is a book about the art and science of how people learn–not just learn tolerably well, but become great at something. It applies to every area of learning and every stage of life.

Charlotte Mason homeschoolers will see many connections with CM’s teachings on discipline and habit formation; but, as I said, this is a book for everybody. Unschoolers will appreciate knowing how to support their children’s passions effectively. Traditional and classical educators will learn how to make their instruction more effective.

The science, in a nutshell, has to do with myelin. Myelin is the insulation around nerves. Yes, learning starts with connections between neurons, but for those connections to work smoothly and efficiently, they need insulation. Growing that insulation is a slow process, and the brain allocates it based on use–the more a connection gets used, the more the brain knows it’s a priority for insulation. And the more insulation the connection has, the more quickly and efficiently it operates, and the better we become at the skill.

So practice makes perfect–not exactly earth-shattering. Ah, but the rub is, it’s not just *any* kind of practice that makes perfect–it’s fully-engaged “deep practice,” where the person is deliberately working right at the top of his ability, perhaps making mistakes, but then fixing them. Picture a baby staggering out, falling down, getting up, trying again. Picture a music student taking the passage apart, trying one piece at a time, slowing it down until he can do it perfectly. An hour or two of this kind of practice is worth weeks of going through the motions.

Coyle then goes on to explore what makes this kind of practice happen–what makes people willing and able to go through this kind of labor. He visits “talent hotbeds” from Brazilian soccer fields to Appalachian music camps–places that produce a disproportionate number of great players or performers. What he finds is that these hotbeds usually have an identifying triggering factor–an outstanding individual athlete who hundreds of youngsters admired and wanted to emulate. On the other hand, there seems to be little genetic limitation on what people can learn to do–rather, it’s what they get inspired to do and then work at hard enough.

Inspiration alone isn’t enough to generate a talent hotbed, of course. There also is a need for settings for deep practice–such as the Brazilian pick-up version of soccer that requires much more interaction with the ball than standard soccer. And for great coaches, whose primary skill turns out not to be speaking inspirationally or comprehensively, but rather knowing both their subject and their students well enough to speak the information the student needs to know right then to make the next step.

Now, this is all very well as a recipe for making a sports or music superstar–but what if neither you or your children care about those things? The point is, though, that this is how we can learn (or teach) anything. It also describes how the Bronte sisters learned to write and how Michelangelo learned to carve.

Reading through this, I realized this is exactly how my older two children learned to read. I tend to say they taught themselves–but they didn’t, not entirely. Rather, I provided them with inspiration and materials, and then, as they worked at it, I spoke to exactly what they needed to know, when they wanted to know it. (“That’s ‘Chex’ on the cereal box; C and H together usually say /ch/.”) It took very little time or effort on my part because I seldom had to tell them the same thing twice–they were fully engaged at the moment when they heard it.

I think babies and toddlers naturally challenge themselves in this way, and are naturally in settings where they get instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t, as when learning to walk and learning to talk. I am sure we can all remember experiences where we were working at that deep practice level and astonished ourselves with how quickly we learned something that seemed impossible at the outset. (One that stands out in my mind is for me, the total klutz, learning to tie a baby on my back, instantly and safely, anywhere.) The challenge is learning to make use of this for whenever and whatever we want to learn, and to teach our children to do the same.

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