Part way through the season of shorter days and longer nights, I am creating space to tidy up some blog topics that have been rattling around. It’s kind of a neural spring cleaning of thoughts that form most clearly in the hour or so just ahead of dawn, not yet at full wakefulness, and before the grip of the daily schedule and the tyranny of the urgent. These thoughts assemble into themes, sometimes emerging from books recently read and from dialogue and debate played out over time about educational challenges to be navigated, especially the ones that appear to be elegantly simple and remarkably complex all at once. As educators, we know the joy of lifelong learning. It’s in our nature, our DNA and our job description and now, more and more of us write about it to express our wonder, our curiosity and our journey of exploration of teaching, learning and success.
For me, that journey was enhanced by reading The Talent Code, a book that has so many applications to our work. Among the many engaging stories that author Daniel Coyle uses to underscore the pivotal role of quality practice, there is one about Shaquille O’Neal and free throws and why his efforts in that part of his game were spectacularly flawed. He would practice, and practice and practice, standing at the free throw line for hours on end, day and night, hoping for the breakthrough that never came. His free throw history is legendary and his percentage was so woeful that opponents fouled him relentlessly, confident that they would get the ball back without surrendering many points. There’s no doubt that O’Neal wanted to be successful and was willing to put in all the necessary effort to fix his faulty technique. A career’s worth of score sheets bear witness to the fact that he never cracked the code.
So what does this have to do with learning and with efforts to accomplish more significant tasks? Coyle explains that the science behind Shaquille O’Neal’s quest can inform our practice beyond the gym and the foul line. His other examples, for the non-sports fans, are engaging and illustrative as well. Whichever of Coyle’s stories attract us, it might cause reflection on some of our classroom and homework norms, many of which – just like free throw shooting practice – have long histories that might need a fresh look. What was happening for Shaq was endless rote repetition. It is similar to what can occur when learners are slavishly completing work sheets (paper version or electronic) or other routinized tasks. They fill up time and space, they feel like hard work, one might even have a sense of accomplishment or triumph in completing them all. But the 50th worksheet question isn’t 10 times better than 5 questions at the same task level. It might be worse. And the 50th free throw doesn’t promote greater success either, not if we are trying to develop skill and the ability to replicate that skill, in context and in the moment.
The Big Aristotle, as he was known, would have been far better served to work on his free throw form by setting up from various places on the floor. Free throws from 14, 16 and 18 feet, maybe from 12 feet and at the edge of the lane… Needing to be thoughtful and deliberate requires the brain to be engaged, to practice far more deeply, and therefore to embed and myelin–wrap the neural connections that lead to successful completion of the task. That’s a far better recipe for success than repeating the same thing over and over without any changes in variables (including stressors) and without much new or fresh thought. 50 varied shots would have been better than 5000 of the regular routine. I find this interesting albeit far too late for Shaq’s free throw percentage or for mine. But it’s not too late for us to assess how we can “make it real” for kids in their learning. Homework, or classwork to embed concepts has a much greater chance of sticking (myelin wrapping) if the neural processing provides a range of variables and challenges to take the learner deeper.
The concept of deep practice is one of the reasons that project–based learning and problem–based learning are attracting so much positive attention, student engagement and good results. You can’t “rote” your way through novel and energizing challenges because your brain – the universe’s most complex computer – is busily activating and strengthening its current competencies and while also making new synaptic connections. Even more, when one brain has authentic opportunities to connect with other brains through teamwork on real, engaging and important problems and projects, the depth and quality of new learning is further enhanced. Add the right mix of pressure and support that is part of the public nature of sharing learning and we have a greater likelihood of a successful mix.
What we understand about the brain, as we explore the rich nexus between neuroscience and education, is helping to revolutionize practice. It also tells us why the best of current practice works. It is evident when we watch expert coaches in the classroom, in the gym and in the studio. They achieve success by going in a very different direction from the drill and repetition exercises that are based on volume rather than quality. Skilled coaches activate and energize learners; they give them right-sized challenges that allow them to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, starting with prior capacities in order to develop new ones. They create appropriate stressors and provide in the moment feedback to help neural pathways build. They know that 50 questions on the worksheet and 50 free throws at the end of practice are much about drill and not so much about skill. Great teachers/great coaches make it real: Animated, Authentic and Active. Good brain food.