Friday, December 31, 2010

Is 'Deep Practice' all that matters? Can anyone be a genius?

We've all heard the nature versus nurture debate played out in various forms in the past, but could there be a new twist? Is the environment in which we learn and the extent of our 'deep practice' of anything, the key to making us all outstanding at anything we choose to pursue? One of the more interesting recent manifestations of this argument was stimulated (in part) by Daniel Coyle's book 'The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown' which was published and received widespread attention in 2009.  Coyle is a journalist (not a psychologist, geneticist or educator), who after observing many talented people drew some conclusions that would, on the surface, seem reasonable. The primary thesis of Coyle's book is that anyone can be a genius. This is a VERY convenient truth for every over ambitious parent out there, or any budding sportsperson or musician. The gist of his the argument is seen in the following quote from his book:
'We tend to think of the great Renaissance artists as a homogeneous group, but the truth is that they were like any other randomly selected group of people. They came from rich and poor families alike; they had different personalities, different teachers, different motivations. But they had one thing in common: they all spent thousands of hours inside a deep-practice hothouse, firing and optimizing circuits, correcting errors, competing, and improving skills. They each took part in the greatest work of art anyone can construct: the architecture of their own talent.'
Coyle's book is motivated by the rapidly increasing knowledge of the brain's incredible plasticity. While it was possible once to hold the extreme view that intelligence is dictated primarily (or in extreme cases, exclusively) due to genetic disposition, the weight of evidence from brain research suggests that this is a ludicrous position. However, so too is the view that everyone begins life as a blank slate ready to become a genius if you are in the right environment, with the right teachers and the opportunities to learn and practice. I'm not suggesting that this is what Coyle is saying, but some of his work has been clutched upon by people who would want to believe that this is the case. Coyle's book quite helpfully reminds us that 'deep practice', good teachers and seeing good models for learning and performance are very important for learning. 

A Bit of Background on the Brain Research

As I mentioned in a previous post on early brain development (here) the child is born with more neurons (probably double), and connections between the cells (synapses), than are needed. Every neuron has an output fibre (an axon) that sends impulses to other neurons. Each neuron in turn has many hair-like input fibres (dendrites) that receive impulses from other neurons. As the child grows the number of neurons remains relatively stable, but each cell grows and becomes bigger, mostly because of the massive growth in dendrites that branch out like flourishing trees.
Prof R. Douglas Fields NIH
In recent years we have learnt a lot about another component of the brain's architecture, myelin. This is essentially material that forms a sheath around the axons. It is critical for brain development and begins to be produced in the foetous in 14th week and continues to develop until adolescence. Its growth is rapid in the first two years of life (and is helped by a high fat diet). Myelin enhances (speeds) and regulates conduction by the nerves and Axons, so that signals get there at the right time.

Myelin was first studied with people who had brain damage (and reduced functioning), for example, people with multiple sclerosis. The work of R. Douglas Fields and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (USA) has expanded our understanding of how myelin improves brain functioning. In essence, this work suggests that the more neurons fire signals between one another, the greater the growth in myelin that is wrapped around the axon of the neuron.  And the more myelin that is wrapped around axons, the faster any signal travels; up to 100 times faster, depending on the coating (or lack of it). Apart from the function of increasing signal speed, myelin also has the capacity to regulate signal speed so that signals can even be slowed to reach synapses at the right time. You can imagine how important this is when a golfer swings a club using more muscles, joints and tendons than is imaginable, all in unison with the tiniest margin for error.
This research has expanded scientists' understanding of what might be possible with brain development. It opens the way for the possibility that 'deep practice' might enable greater intellectual growth in the young, as well as repairing and improving the brain functioning of those who have suffered from disease or injury that affects nerve functioning.

Typical Structure of a Neuron & Myelin Sheath (C.G. Morris, 'Psychology: An Introduction', 12th Ed, Pearson)
Coyle and 'Deep Practice' 

Coyle's concept of 'Deep Practice' is very helpful. He defines it this way:
'Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted areas - operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes - makes you smarter. Or to 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.'
The concept isn't new - for example, Anders Ericsson defined 'deliberate practice' well before Coyle came up with the label 'deep practice' for which there is great overlap - but it reinforces much that psychologists, educators and sociologists have been saying for a long time. Anyone who knows the work of Ericsson, Vygotsky and Bruner, will hear echoes of their work in Coyle's book; some of whose work he acknowledges. But what Coyle does is add on the ideas that flow from the recent brain research and popularise the idea that brain capacity isn't simply fixed at birth.  

What I like about Coyle's idea of Deep Practice is that it reinforces a number of fundamental tenets of good teaching and learning that many educators have been promoting for decades. This is my take on what matters.

Learning begins when the learner has a sense that there is something to be achieved, and a hurdle to be overcome, a skill to be mastered. Parents and teachers can help these moments to occur for children through the experiences they provide and the learning environments that are created.

2. Encourage children to lurk in challenging territory

Vygotsky's work taught us about scaffolding children's learning and encouraging them to learn in the 'Zone of Proximal Development'. By this he meant that learning occurs best when we are tackling skills and knowledge just beyond our current level of competence. Coyle's description of "operating at the edges of your ability" reinforces this same type of thinking (see my earlier post on scaffolding and 'guided learning' HERE).

3. Learn, explore or practice things in discrete units

While this isn't the only way to learn (e.g. approaching some areas holistically can be best) it is an effective way to learn incrementally. Of course, we can't learn everything incrementally, and don't! But you can see the obvious applications of this work for sport, music and manual tasks, but it is also helpful when learning language, mathematical concepts, early reading, or for people with learning difficulties. When I coached junior soccer, cricket, hockey and softball I spent a large amount of time breaking the game into skill areas and having my teams practice over and over, sometimes almost in slow motion to get the technique right. The same thinking is seen in the way we teach children phonics or introduce them to sight words.

4. Practice often

A fundamental element of any area of learning is repetition and practice. This isn't new, but the work of Douglas Field and others helps us to understand why it is so effective. This work suggests that in my junior sporting teams, when I broke individual skills like throwing down into the various movements of the arm and had my teams practice the movements over and over again, the skill became more automatic as myelin developed. One of my cricket teams won a competition based pretty much on their brilliant fielding after lots of 'deep practice', they were okay at batting and bowling but they fielded better that any team of 12 year-olds in the competition. The same idea can be seen in the golfer who hits hundreds of balls at the driving range.

In educational terms, it's why I stress often in my work that if you want a child to read better, that they will need to read more words in the 'real game', that is, reading books and other whole texts. Any strategy that reduces that amount of time spent practising the ultimate aim of the skill should be avoided. 

So, can anyone be a genius, or even a Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods or Don Bradman? 

The short answer is no. It isn't just about 'deep practice', genes still matter. We need to remember that there are alternative views to Coyle that place far greater control of genius in the hands of genetic make-up. But what the new brain research shows us is that practice is very important and that when you view any outstanding individual, their performance will reflect a mix of genetic predisposition, motivation, opportunity and practice.

Leonardo da Vinci's Helicopter
Could any junior cricketer be a Don Bradman or a Leonardo da Vinci, it would seem not. For non-cricket followers, Bradman was an Australian cricketer who is undisputed as the greatest player of all time. In cricket an individual getting 100+ runs in an innings is the key achievement, which few achieve. Bradman averaged 99.94 for his whole career! That's a bit like batting close to a 1,000 for your whole career. He grew up using a cricket stump (a fraction the size of a bat) and a golf ball that he hit against a corrugated iron tank for hours each day. Many see this as the secret of his amazing eye, but how come no one else in the history of the game has come close to his achievements (the next best all time career average is 60.97)? Because achievement isn't just about 'deep practice', our genetic disposition matters too.

This should temper our ambitions with children. While it's good to encourage children to aim high, as parents and teachers, we shouldn't assume that if we just put any child in the best school, with the best teacher and give them all that they need for 'deep practice' in whatever area they choose, that they can achieve. Nor should we assume that if we can just accelerate their learning that they will sustain their achievements and end up better than everyone else. The latter is the folly of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read', which assumes that teaching sight words to a child 6 months old will one day lead to them becoming geniuses.

What the above work also indicates is just how important quality teaching and parenting is. Teachers matter!

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