|Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell|
What if We Maximized our Talent?
Part II in a Series on Empowerment and Potential
Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.
In the August Extra Credit article I asked, “What if we focus on what is right”? In this piece, that line of thinking is extended to ask, what if we maximized our talent?
One Perspective on Talent
In an accessible and convincing manner, Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code describes how maximizing potential is much less about what you’re born with and much more about nurturing and growing who you are. More specifically, after visiting nine talent hotbeds around the globe, Coyle identified three key elements (deep practice, ignition & master coaching) that seem to occur in all talent hotbeds and ultimately lead to profound changes in brain physiology.
Talent is Connected to Brain Physiology
Coyle argues that talent is the direct result of changes to brain physiology, specifically the fatty cells called myelin (aka “grey matter”) that wrap around the neurons in the brain. Coyle asserts that “skill is myelin insulation that wraps around neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.” The growth of myelin in the brain is analogous to building muscle. Myelin, like muscle, responds to being worked and worked again.
For myelin to grow, Coyle argues that it is necessary to “run into obstacles,” make mistakes and thus be in what he calls the “sweet-spot” for learning. Our own experiences, and plenty of hard research (e.g., see “Zone of Proximal Development” by Lev Vygotsky) support this notion.
But what is the line between mistakes that help and mistakes that harm? Also well-supported by research is the idea that experiencing too many errors in the learning process will negatively impact self-esteem and might even lead to a state known as learned helplessness, in which the learner simply stops trying to learn something.
This is compounded by research suggesting that myelin growth in individuals with learning differences is impeded. For example, dyslexics learning how to read might be at a significant disadvantage because the typical hard-wired mechanism for doing so is faulty. This suggests it’s just harder and that other “ways around” must be developed. It also suggests that the research that has been done to develop ways to more effectively teach students who learn differently — and the schools where this happens — are incredibly important in a fair and equitable society.
Throughout the book, Coyle describes nine talent hotbeds that range from entire countries to very modest dance and vocal studios. For example, he describes a “ramshackle” tennis club in Moscow, which has produced an incredible number of world-class tennis players. The majority of the book describes what occurs in these talent hotbeds to produce so many talented people.
Three Key Elements
It seems talent hotbeds ignite learning. Something happens in these hotbeds that either lights a fire in learners or attracts learners whose fires are already sparked. The best news of all is that Coyle’s book reveals that ignition is possible in all of us. When the conditions for talent to grow are ripe, the potential and passion that lie within all of us can be revealed.
The conditions are ripe when deep practice occurs. Deep practice is when the learner is in a prime learning state. It’s that time when you are totally absorbed in what you are learning. Do you remember a time that you were in this state? Perhaps, reading a book that totally hooked you in?
Coyle describes a very interesting example. Before the invention of the flight simulator, military pilot training was for more hazardous than it is today. Back then, trainees had to take significant risks in learning the skills it took to be effective combat pilots. As a result, many trainees were lost. That is, until Edwin Link and his pilot trainer (i.e., simulator) came along. Although it took a while for the military to believe that one could learn vital aspects of flying while on the ground, the flight trainer was eventually adopted. The success of the trainer ultimately depended on placing pilots in deep practice learning situations, where mistakes could be made – without costing lives.
To fully realize talent, we must be taught and guided by someone who is exceptionally well-trained and passionate. This essential idea has been recognized since the dawn of our species.
But what are the characteristics? Along with expert-level knowledge and a certain charisma, Coyle describes these instructors’ uncanny ability to customize each message. For example, John Wooden, the legendary former basketball coach at UCLA, was said to give constant, effective and customized feedback throughout an entire two-hour practice.
Developing More Talent Hotbeds
Schools – especially learning difference schools – are uniquely poised to develop talent hotbeds, if we are simply intentional and knowledgeable about the essentials required for success. I can only speak to my own school, Currey Ingram Academy, but I feel absolutely confident that our students experience ignition in our personalized environment. I can see it in their eyes and in their urgently raised hands in class – often from the students you’d least expect.
Great things also happen when schools have the time, planning and staffing to allow for deep practice to occur as part of a school day. For example, when an elementary-aged reading group only has four to six students, and those students may work for an hour and 45 minutes every day, with great opportunity for quiet, focus and intensity, wonderful things can happen for all learners – even for those students who have gifts in reading.
The master coaching requirement reflects Currey Ingram’s commitment to professional development for our teachers. With more than four times the annual requirement for faculty professional development, I put us up against anyone when it comes to the development of mastery within a staff. Right now, we are codifying and fine-tuning our mentoring program to continue to look at how we support our newest faculty members.
So, as I reflect on Coyle’s conclusions, I am encouraged by what I see here and what I see in the other fine learning difference schools in the nation. I know these ratios and resources are not always possible, and many larger more traditional schools are doing amazing work along these lines. I firmly believe that all educators can be encouraged by this research and what it tells us about the key elements to developing talent in our students, our staff and ourselves.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.
Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.