In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 2

Part 2: Deep Practice

This is the second installment in a nine part article.  If you have not yet read Part 1, you should begin with that:

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Counting Treats with a very interested audience

A very interested observer

Deep Practice
Here’s how Coyle describes deep practice:

“When I started visiting talent hotbeds, I expected to be dazzled.  I expected to witness world-class speed, power, and grace.  Those expectations were met and exceeded – about half of the time. But that was only half of the time.  The other half I witnessed something very different: moments of slow, fitful struggle.  It was as if a herd of deer suddenly encountered a hillside coated with ice.  They slammed to a halt; they stopped, looked, and thought carefully before taking each step.  Making progress became a matter of small failures, a rhythmic pattern of botches. . . . The talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising.  They are seeking out the slippery hills.  They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will make mistakes, and somehow making mistakes is making them better.”

The question Coyle wanted to understand was how?

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a different way, experiences where you are 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.”

Most of us would read this and want to run the opposite way.  Struggle.  Mistakes.  That’s not how we want to learn.     And it certainly doesn’t sound like clicker training where we work hard to avoid putting our animals through frustrating learning experiences.  Is there a contradiction here?  It turns out that the deep practice techniques Coyle described actually fit beautifully into a clicker training framework.

The Sweet Spot
We may want to learn without struggle, but according to the researchers who are discovering how myelin works – it’s a terrible way to learn if you really want to become good at something.  Coyle quoted Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA:

“We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong.  It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build.  The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”

The key to deep practice is picking a goal that is just beyond your present abilities and targeting your efforts towards achieving that goal.  Or as Bjork put it:

“It’s all about finding the sweet spot.  There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do.  When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off.”

That sounds like a good training plan.  The sweet spot is the puzzle we set.  Find the answer, and, click, you get a treat.  If the puzzle is too easy, the learner won’t progress.  If the puzzle is too hard the learner will get frustrated and quit.  The sweet spot stretches the learner just enough so he is always reaching for the next small increment of success.

Coyle summarized the discussion of myelin and deep practice with this:

“Deep practice is a strange concept for two reasons.  The first is that it cuts against our intuition about talent.  Our intuition tells us that practice relates to talent in the same way that a whetstone relates to a knife: it’s vital but useless without a solid blade of so-called natural ability.  Deep practice raises an intriguing possibility: that practice might be the way to forge the blade itself.

The second reason deep practice is a strange concept is that it takes events that we normally strive to avoid – namely, mistakes – and turns them into skills.  To understand how deep practice works, it’s first useful to consider the unexpected but crucial importance of errors to the learning process.”

And then he asked what to me was a key question where horses are involved: “How do you get good at something when making a mistake has a decent chance of killing you?”

Coyle used as his example the high death rate for pilots in the early days of aviation.  How do you learn to fly when mistakes can be fatal?  The answer was you develop simulators.

“The Air Corps pilots who trained in the first simulators were no braver or smarter than the ones who crashed.  They simply had the opportunity to practice more deeply.”

Coming Soon – Part 3: Equine Simulators

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice
By Alexandra Kurland
written October 2014

I wrote this article originally for my on-line clicker training course.  It’s a thirty page article so for this blog I have broken it up into 9 parts.  

Part 1: “The Talent Code”

This is the first installment in a nine part article
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Clinic Fun: Let the Equines Watch While the Humans Learn

Discovering Why Things Work
I love finding books that agree with me!  Who doesn’t.  It’s good to get outside confirmation that you are very much on the right track, especially when the track you are on is one you are pioneering. The horses tell us when we’ve chosen well, but they can’t always explain why something is working.  That’s been the case with many elements in my work.  I often know something works before I have figured out why.  For example: we know the click in clicker training is powerful.  Jaak Panksepp helped us to understand why.  The puzzle solving nature of clicker training sparks the SEEKER system, one of seven core emotional systems he has identified.

Another example are the bone rotations.  The horses told me that they worked, but I needed a t’ai chi specialist to help me understand why and to spot the universality of bone rotations in so much of horse handling.  Even something as basic as how you deliver treats has a bone rotation embedded in it.  When you discover the rotation and include it in your food delivery techniques, your horse has a much better shot at developing good treat taking manners.

The horses could tell me that letting them take a nap while the humans practiced their rope handling skills was a good thing.  That seems obvious enough.  Working out what you are going to do before you apply it to the horses makes sense.  After reading Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”, I now have a much deeper understanding of why.  I also have an even greater appreciation for the teaching process that I have been developing over the last twenty odd years.

The Talent Code
One of the long held beliefs of our society is that some people are simply born more talented than others.  Pick a great sports star.  We believe that person was born with the talent that let him run faster, jump higher.  Or pick a world class musician or dancer.  Those individuals have some innate talent that lets them play a violin better than anyone else, or dance more beautifully.  Yes, they had to learn their art. They had to practice – but there was some special, innate gift that set them apart from all the others who were learning and practicing. Or was there?

Certainly genes are a factor.  If your genes are coded for five feet not seven, it will be hard to become the next world class basketball star, but there are plenty of seven foot players who never make it to greatness.  What is the difference between them and the people whose names we know?

Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”, provides answers to this question.  Coyle would say it comes down to three elements which he calls: deep practice, ignition and master coaching.  All three come together to build skills.  In his book Coyle described what he referred to as talent hotspots: training centers that have produced an exceptionally large number of superstars.  He described a tennis camp in Russia that has produced many of the world’s top players.  Students don’t spend their training time out on a court hitting balls.   Instead they are lined up in rows, like so many ballet dancers, practicing their swing – without rackets, without balls.  He described a music camp not far from where I live that ranks among its alumni Yo Yo Ma and Isaak Perlman.  Students there practice music so slowly that it becomes unrecognizable.  Familiar pieces sound more like the drawn out notes of a whale song than anything you would hear in a concert hall.

These practices grabbed my attention.  They were so familiar.  This is how I teach.  Like the tennis players who learn their technique first without a racket in hand, I have people learn their handling skills while their horses take a nap in their stalls.  And like the music students who slow down their music to reveal every note, we slow movement down to reveal every weight shift. I have been developing these teaching techniques over thirty years of teaching.  I know they work.  I see it in the elegant dance that emerges between horse and handler as their skills are perfected.  Now Coyle’s book has helped me to understand better why this approach works so well

It turns out that talent isn’t something you are born with.  It’s something you build.

Coming Soon: Part 2: The Myelin Factor