on 1 September 2012
Daniel Coyle's thesis is fairly basic. Talent is not inherent, but can be grown. This puts him fairly firmly on the side of the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. But that's not what's central, as he says; that debate is pretty unproductive. He's trying to define what kinds of nurturing factors can grow talent, and splits them into two main groups: ignition and learning.
The learning techniques he describes well, calling the most successful process he identifies 'deep practice'. With examples, he demonstrates how even the most successful talents have put huge amounts of carefully coached effort into becoming great. As he quotes Michelangelo as saying, if only they knew how much work it took. This is something like 3-5hrs a day for 7-10years, to reach the 'magic' figure of 10,000 hours. Coyle does fall into the pop-science trap of fixating on one particular element of building neural skills patterns - myelin - and repeating that word as often as he can throughout the book. However, the neurological theory which explains the process of skill-building is explained clearly.
So far, so clear. But then the book moves on to talk about the second factor - ignition. It is fairly easy to explain and have your readers accept that huge amounts of hard-working-practice can develop great skills. It is much less easy to show the factors which enable people to develop and maintain the motivation and focus to keep working at that level for such a long time. Randomly disconnected facts are thrown at us: a disproportionate number of successful politicians and scientists lost a parent at a young age; 100m mens' sprint champions are nearly all younger sons; there is an ignition effect when 'someone like me' achieves, enabling me to believe that 'I can too'. There's a strange chapter in praise of a charter school system with a single-minded academic focus and high levels of discipline which seems at odds with Coyle's approval of a basketball coach's speech earlier that 'I'm not going to treat you all the same... because you're all different.' The whole thing doesn't take us much further than the current London 2012 Olympic slogan, imploring us to 'inspire a generation'. That's a wonderfully positive sentiment. But it pretty much begs the question of how we get (and more to the point, keep) people positively motivated.
Perhaps it's a little unfair to ask for a book this size to answer that question, but it is disappointing, after the clarity of the first part of his thesis, that the author doesn't advance a coherent theory of the second part.
on 2 September 2009
An interesting read about how "talent" develops. Apparently in most cases, such a thing as talent does not exist, and it is more down to how hard you work and practice.
First, you need "ignition", an event that makes you want to become great at something.
Secondly, you need mentoring, a teacher who can support you and correct your errors.
Thirdly, you need deep practice, a state of deep focus where you analyse what you are doing in the finest detail and correct your errors.
The purpose of practice is to strengthen the myelin strand coatings in the brain to strengthen brain connections made during practice.
Overall, a good book, useful to parents, and anyone involved in studying and learning of any kind.
In recent years, there have been several books and even more articles written in response to research conducted by Anders Ericsson in these subject areas: the structure and acquisition of expert performance, experts' ability to expand working memory and access to long-term memory with training, and use of Protocol analysis as a rigorous methodology for eliciting verbal reports of thought sequences as a valid source of data on thinking. These books include Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle gratefully acknowledges the importance of Ericsson's research, agreeing with Colvin and Gladwell that greatness isn't born; rather, it is developed by a combination of luck (i.e. being "given" opportunities); ignition (i.e. self-motivation activated by one or more "primal cues"), what Coyle calls "deep practice"(i.e. 10, 000 hours of focused and disciplined repetition, requiring an energetic and passionate commitment), and master coaching provided by "talent whisperers" who "possess vast, deep frameworks of knowledge, which they apply to the steady, incremental work of growing skill circuits, which they ultimately don't control."
At one point is his narrative (Page 72), Coyle declares, "We are myelin beings." OK, but so what? When tapping into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted practice builds skills, we create entry to "a zone of accelerated learning that, while it can't quite be bottled, can be accessed by those who know how. In short, they're cracked the talent code." What about myelin? According to Dr. George Bartzokis, professor of neurology at U.C.L.A., it is "the key to talking, reading, learning skills, being human." It is a neural insulator that, Coyle claims, some neurologists now consider to be "the holy grail" of skill acquisition because every human skill "is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse - basically a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin's vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits in the right way - when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note - our myelin responds by wrapping layers around the that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become." Better yet, "we are all born with the opportunity to become, as Mr. Myelin [viewed as broadband] likes to put it, lords of our own Internet. The trick is to figure out how to do that."
As Coyle's uncommonly detailed "Notes on Sources" on Pages 223-232 indicate, he consulted the results of dozens of different surveys. Moreover, he seems to have read almost all available books and articles in which those who conducted the research share their insights. It should be noted that he also traveled extensively, conducted dozens of interviews, and engaged in hundreds of on-site conversations, thereby supplementing others' research data with his own first-hand observations. For example, he visited inner-city schools involved in the Knowledge Is Power Program (aka KIPP) and spoke at length with the program's co-founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. When the program was launched, most of the students ranked far below average and only 53% of them passed the state English and math tests. At the end of the first year, 90% of them passed.
Coyle provides a rigorous and thorough analysis of KIPP in Chapter 7. Here is a brief excerpt: "One way to look at KIPP is as a unique tale of goodhearted underdogs who caught lightning in a bottle. If that were all it was, our interest in the story would end now. The other way to look at it, however, is an example of pure ignition: the art and science of creating a talent hotbed [in each school, in each class, and in each student's mind] from the ground up, without the assistance of a World Series homer or another magical breakthrough. That's why it's useful to look under this remarkable jalopy to see what makes it go." No gimmicks and no shortcuts. Currently, there are 66 KIPP public schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia enrolling more than 16,000 students. Across the KIPP network, 65 of the existing 66 schools are charter schools. The majority of KIPP schools (more than 85 percent) are middle schools designed to serve fifth through eighth grade students. The remaining schools include seven high schools, six pre-kindergarten/elementary schools, and one pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school.
As Coyle suggests, "it's time to rewrite the maxim that practice makes perfect. The truth is, practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect. And myerlin operates by a few fundamental principles" that explain where extraordinary talent (defined as "the possession of repeatable skills that don't depend on physical size") comes from and how it can be developed. Although it is possible to "overlay research such as Ericsson's with the new myelin science to formulate a universal theory of skill" (i.e. deep practice X 10,000 hours = world-class skill), it is important to keep in mind that "the truth is more complicated than that." I am grateful to Daniel Coyle for providing such an entertaining as well as informative book, that that has increased substantially my understanding of how to "grow" talent. His is a brilliant achievement.
on 2 November 2012
This is an attempt at popular psychoscience in style of Malcolm Gladwell, but far less convincing. The theme of the book is learning, particular practical skills. The author, Daniel Coyle, clearly travelled far to meet with practitioners of 'deep learning' and I feel that a book with hard conclusions just had to follow.
An unfortunate example cited early in the book of a success case is Lance Armstrong. Subsequent revelations do not disprove Coyle's central hypothesis but, let's face it, the Armstrong example is not a good start to the book. As for what 'deep learning' is I can't say I'm wiser for having read this book. Another early example in the book, a young music student apparently capable of packing the equivalent of 1 hour's practice into 6 minutes, seems to contradict the book's main idea. Throughout, reference is made to recent research on myelin, the insulation that builds up around nerve fibres to speed the transmission of messages and so build strong memories, for example, for practical skills involved in music and sport. As the author acknowledges, myelin takes time to build up and there can be no short cut to this. From the perspective of teachers and students building strong neural connections is the objective and the myelin theory Coyle describes doesn't change the fact that practicing in the right way is the route to effective learning.
Of more interest, are the parts of the book devoted to how individuals, particularly youngsters, can be inspired to learn and practice a new skill.