education philosopher

I wish I’d Read This Before Becoming a Teacher

Posted in Book reviews by KevinCK on June 9, 2009

talent codeBelow is a review I wrote for amazon.com on Daniel Coyle’s wonderful book, “The Talent Code.” In my opinion, this is a great read for teachers. Coyle breaks success down into three ingredients (the devil is, of course, in the details): (a) deep practice; (b) drive, and (c) good coaching. Coyle offers great suggestions on what these things are and how to go about achieving them. (Deep practice is an especially important concept for teachers.)

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We’ve all wondered what the “ingredients” are to become truly great at something, We’ve all ruminated on what seperates the average from the good from the great. As a teacher, I have spent many hours reflecting on the constitution of good teaching and good learning, both key things to understand in order to connect with students.

Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, points to three of the most important ingredients to greatness: deep practice, ignition (motivated passion), and good coaching. He also unveils for the general reading public a new, and quite maverick, theory of how the brain maximizes learning and memory: rather than the brain’s synapses (connections between neurons) being the key to rapid recall and retention of information, Coyle suggests that the answer lies in myelin (a lipid based chemical that coats the synapse connections). myelin, Coyle suggests, makes neural connections stronger, and the stronger they get, the better and quicker our brains work.

How myelin goes takes us back to the age-old maxim: use it or lose it. myeiin, like the synapse connections they protect, grow stronger based on repeated use. In the language of psychology, this amounts to the idea that the more one practices, the better one gets. But as Coyle notes, not just any old practice makes perfect. DEEP practice is the type of practice that finds the practicer struggling to work through a problem, correcting and monitoring herself as she goes until she gets better and better. So, it is not how much we practice, but how thoughtfully and reflectively we practice.

The next section of The Talent Code is devoted to the idea of ignition, or, motivation. It almost goes without saying that to be great, one needs to be motivated to be great. In fact, one key ingredient of deep practice (that Coyle should have mentioned in this second section) is that deep practice can only take place in people who are so motivated that they can fail, try, fail better, try better, etc. That is what ‘ignition’ is about; it is not only about practice, but the desire to keep practicing and improving.

Lastly, Coyle talks about what makes a master coach. A master coach, it turns out, is not one who is the most knowledgeable, the most inspiratioanl, or the toughest. Being a good coach is about the ability to foster and guide deep practice (and ignition) in pupils. If one cannot see the “big picture” of what a master should be and constantly guide students towards that vision, one can simply not be a good coach.

Through each of these sections, journalist Coyle uses highly illuminating and engaging examples of his points. What is deep practice? Ask the players on the small island of Curacao, or the players at Brazillian soccer academies. What does optimal ignition look like? For that, we travel to the KIPP charter schools (where the key motivator is college, college, college). A master coach? We examine the likes of famed basketball coach John Wooden and reknowned cello instructor Hans Jensen. Not only is the book very insightful, but it is quite enjoyable.

There is one major complaint I do have about this book – the author’s quite myopic mentioning of myelin. Like someone who has stumbled upon the next great x, Coyle is quite over-the-top in his enthusiasm for myelin being the new great answer to the question of how we learn. Even many of the scientists he quotes temper their enthusiasm for myelin saying that myelin’s link to learning is only tentative and hypothetical at this point. You’d never know it from Coyle’s very non-tentative statements.

Further, I found the chapter and numerous sections devoted to the myelin theory of learning are wholly irrelevant to the book’s point. Whether myelin helps coat neural connections to make them faster and stronger is quite unnecessary to understanding that deep practice + ingition help us learn. While it is an interesting idea to think about, we do not need to see ignition as (Coyle’s words) “nyecinizing” the brain: it works just as well to simply see it as igniting the passion required for success. Thus, about 35 pages of this book could have been left out without doing any damage to the author’s points.

Anyhow, all that aside, I STRONGLY reccomend this book to people, and particularly to educators concerned with how to better teach their students. Since reading this book, I have tried to incorporate some of the book’s ideas about deep practice and effective coaching. While it is too early to see if these ideas have worked in the classroom, I can say that this book can’t help but inspire all in the teaching profession (and those puzzling over how to learn better).

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