Friday, August 6, 2010

Suzuki and the Talent Code

There should be dancing in the streets when an old idea is crushed under the weight of science and reason. If this old idea puts limitations on what we can achieve, what we can learn, what we can do, then let's laugh as it fizzles out under the brightness of a new one. Let's leave it behind us and not look back!

We have that new idea. It's about how we teach our kids.

There is a book that came out last year called The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. The facts that he puts forward are simple: there is no such thing as inborn talent. Once you accept that the above is true, you see how liberating this idea is. Anyone can do it. But can we handle it? Can we shoulder the burden of responsibility once we know that the kids that go through our schools are all capable of great things?

All you need to develop great talent are for certain factors to be in place. You need a spark of ignition, something to light a child up with the desire to be able to be or do something. You need a master coach, a teacher who gets you, gets the thing you want to learn, and is able to bring the two of you together. And you need what Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the hard part. It's the act of pushing yourself against the limit of your abilities. By doing this you build a substance called myelin, which literally wraps itself around neurons like paper towels on a roll. The more you engage in deep practice, the more you wrap myelin, the faster the electrical circuits in your brain fire. To develop talent is simply to wrap myelin. Scratch the surface of anyone who appears impossibly talented and you will find someone who has spent most of his or her life wrapping myelin.

Deep practice can be broken into three components, ways to manage the struggle of dancing at the edge of your capacity. When we do music and we come upon a passage cannot even imagine ever mastering, we do three things: we chunk it up. We slow it down. And we repeat it.

There are many people who instinctively understand this process, but I want to talk about one particular group. We have been brought together by the ideas of a man who voiced the above surprising claim over 50 years ago, in another country. In the late 1940s, Shinichi Suzuki said that every single child can become a great violinist. Those of us influenced by him, those of us practicing his ideas, teaching kids in the method he has given us, have clamored about this book, devouring it in one gulp and handing it out like party favors.

Once we discard the idea that only those born with certain abilities can become hugely talented, where are we? Lots of people say, "any child can do whatever they set their mind to," but do we really believe it? Do we understand what it means?

I think sometimes that our world of conventional education teaches kids their limitations rather than their possibilities. It is, by its nature and execution, negative. Kids sit in class doing math not learning of the glories of numbers that lay before them, but squashed by the fact that they feel -- they know -- they can't do it. They sit drawing diagrams of cells waiting for the moment that they can stop and do something else. Even in our so-called "gifted and talented" programs, what do we teach but that those of us not invited are neither gifted nor talented? But here is well-documented research saying that we are all equal under the sun. We all have neurons, we all wrap myelin. Every one of us can follow our dreams and see them become real.

We can turn education on its head and start all over. Teach kids that struggle is only the beginning. Frustration with stuff we only half understand and are convinced we can't master leads to mastery and understanding. Sometimes when my daughter is practicing the violin, she is in tears because she can't master something. Then she masters it. But why the tears? Maybe we need to model and teach that struggle is good, struggle is what works -- and struggle is manageable. Push it! Keep going! And then move on to the next impossibly hard thing.

Suzuki didn't voice his ideas in terms of neuroscience. His method came from his study of how children learn their native language. He took apart that process and applied it to learning the violin. Listen to those around you. Repeat what you hear. Start slowly and build in baby steps. Enjoy yourself, celebrate each new word. Suzuki students chunk, slow and repeat every day. They've been managing deep practice since they were toddlers. Their struggle to learn is shared, praised and encouraged by parents.

Most of all, what Suzuki knew and what he taught came from love. Every child was dear to him. Every parent was taught to see the limitless ability of their children. How to teach with love. How to love with teaching. What is education but the belief in the hearts, minds, hands of every child? The Talent Code gives us nothing but the knowledge that we are right who teach with love and faith in all children.

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