Could There be a Silver Bullet to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age.  She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it.  Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her.  For years, I have been asked variations of this question.  “How do you do it?”  “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?”  “Why do you do it?”  “Is there a secret for teaching math?”  The list goes on and on.  If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person.  In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to.  I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting.  I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem.  The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions?  And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully? Continue reading

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Children are Awesome. Let’s Keep Them That Way.

Kids are awesome, even when they don’t seem to be.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with them.  What we do and say to them are the only things that can ruin that perfection.  Alternatively, what we do and say to them can also make them even more awesome.

Kids just want to play, have fun, learn, be inspired, be heard, try new things, come up with great ideas, have those great ideas heard, be cared for, care about someone, run around, crash in and out of love, run passionately after crazy ideas, challenge the status quo, be given a chance to succeed, have someone believe in them, have someone find the genius in their ideas and words, have deep and meaningful conversations, be rebellious, be fearless, be vulnerable, and most importantly, be awesome.

Children are awesomeEssentially, kids are everything we want to be and spend lots of money to try to become through self-help books, coaches, psychologists, motivational speakers, conferences, workshops, etc.

As teachers, parents, and citizens, it is our opportunity and responsibility to help them become the awesome adults they can become.  It is our opportunity and responsibility to: listen to their ideas and problems; support them when they try and fail; encourage them to fall madly in love again after heartbreak; support their subsequent events after failure; give them a chance even when we don’t think they stand a chance (they will surprise us); help them believe in something again even after they were let down; not tell them I told you so; inspire and motivate them; redirect their rebellious behavior towards situations that need that kind of behavior; look for and encourage the genius in their words; teach them what they want to learn; help them find something they can be awesome at, even if just for the short-term; be delicate when they are vulnerable; buy them a burger and have conversations with them for hours; and most importantly, believe they can be awesome.

So it’s really up to us as teachers, parents, and citizens.  Children are ours to ruin or make great.  Let’s focus our efforts on the latter.  It’s really that simple.

How to Hack Your Ability to Learn Quickly

I recently started reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, a book about unlocking the neurological insights for developing skills in sports, art, music, math, and just about anything. What interested me most about this book was the neurological perspective that Daniel Coyle wrote from. He truly dedicated this book to unlocking our ability to develop skills and talent all the way from the cellular level. His writing style is great and easy to follow.

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

In his book he talks about the significant role that myelin plays in learning and developing skills. Essentially, if you consider brain cells (neurons) the data and the connections (axons and dendrites) the reporting, synthesis, and insight from connecting the data then myelin is the auto-reporting feature that consistently extracts and executes on the insight from these established connections even as the data evolves and updates. So imagine an automatically generated report that runs periodically pulling updated data on a regular basis. You have essentially locked down this reporting insight and turned it into an actionable tool. Myelin is the wrapping that insulates the connections made between and among neurons in your brain. It exists in order to lock down skills and abilities you learn so that you can use them again on-demand and at increasingly difficult levels. Significant myelin forms when you achieve a deep level of practice on a regular basis. This is the kind of practice that the best athletes engage in on a regular basis, thus where we get the saying, practice makes perfect. However, Coyle makes a slight change to that by adding that perfect practice makes perfect.

MyelinIn his book, Coyle writes a great deal about perfect practice and cites a case where a girl learned to play a song on her clarinet in 6 minutes. Essentially, she captured a month’s worth of learning in 6 minutes. The student, Clarissa, was considered mediocre and not significantly talented prior to this event. What she did, successfully, was fall into a deep level of practice where she was aware of and worked through every mistake she made. She started by working through the entire piece with all of her mistakes and then broke it down into pieces. She hacked her learning ability in order to produce an outstanding result in a short amount of time.

Speed BagI recently tested this with an experiment of my own. I have wanted to learn the speed bag at my boxing gym for a couple of months now. I attempted it a few times and couldn’t get any rhythm going at all. So the other day I stepped up to the bag and committed to deep practice no matter how bad I looked (ignoring self-consciousness is key to deep practice). Five minutes into it, the on-duty instructor came by and offered some help. He demonstrated the entire skill and then broke it down into the steps. I gave him 110% of my attention. Then he left me to practice. I made so many mistakes but this time I was aware of them and simply kept making adjustments to correct for them. I started to become aware of my timing, the location on the bag I would hit, my positioning (feet and hands), my rhythm, my pace, and my posture. At this point I am adjusting each of these as I correct each mistake. All of a sudden I can hit the bag several times in a row. First I go for 5 in a row. Then what I felt was an impossible 10. Took some effort to get to 10. All of a sudden I am at 20 hits in a row. Then I set a goal of 100. I could not stop until I hit 100 with each hand, straight through, no errors. Thirty minutes later, I did it. I had completely acquired the skill of hitting the speed bag. I essentially compressed a month’s worth of practice into 30 hyper-focused minutes of deep practice. I felt like a video game character leveling up! I went back two days later and tried again. I picked up right where I left off. Except this time I had a new goal. I wanted to incorporate a little footwork into it and move while I was hitting it. Fifteen minutes into the practice, skill acquired. Two days after that, I had a new goal. To hit the bag at least 10 times in a row with my eyes closed. Thirty minutes of deep, hyper-focused practice later, skill acquired, level-up achieved.

This simple experiment helped me realized we can all do this for just about anything we choose. We simply need to spend time in deep practice and not care even one bit what others think. I have already begun a new experiment for taking penalty shots and direct kicks with a soccer ball. In my first two hyper-focused practice sessions I saw dramatic improvements in my consistency and accuracy with the ball.

Breakdown of the steps I took:

1. Decide that you truly want to learn something.  This is important because deep and focused practice requires dedication and commitment.

2. Observe a demonstration of the entire skill in action by an experienced person.  This is very easy thanks to YouTube.  Focus on all of the movements, steps, etc.

3. Break up the skill into smaller chunks (i.e. steps).  Ask someone or yourself, what are the steps this breaks down to.  Watch the demo carefully for these steps.

4. Attempt the entire skills with mistakes and all.  Just run through it so you get a feel for the entire skill you decided to acquire.  You MUST not care what others around you think.

5. Begin practicing and pause with each mistake, reflect on what the mistake was, make corrections and start again.  Focus 110% on this step.  No distractions, just you and the desired skill at hand.  Each time you will notice different steps that need tweaking so that they all come together for successful execution of the entire skill.

6. Repeat step 5 as many times as you need to complete a full demonstration of the skill.

7.  Celebrate with a big HELL YEAH when you can successfully execute the entire skill.

8.  Don’t stop there, keep increasing the challenge and practicing.  Myelin can eventually break down and with it goes your skill. This is why the best athletes practice even the simple skills (i.e. free throws) every day.

I share this with everyone because this is something all of us can do with almost anything we choose. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the learning process. While high levels of mastery do take time, you can acquire the necessary skills a lot faster than you think.

What skill are you going to experiment this method with first?

Why are More Mistakes Critical to Success?

Previously, I wrote a blog post about how spectacular mistakes can lead to spectacular success.  Without letting go of fear of the former, we cannot have the latter.  In this post I want to discuss why we should get excited about making mistakes – many of them.  Perhaps it’s poor writing fashion, but I will risk giving away the punch line up front:  with every mistake we make we learn at least one thing that doesn’t work and have the opportunity to discover at least one correction.  If we look at it that way, our technique can only improve with every mistake we make, thus the more mistakes we make, the better off we are.

Taking a stroll through Central Park

Since moving back to NYC from St. Louis, I have had significantly more opportunities to spend time with my baby niece.  In the last few months she has been working on walking.  I am not sure there is any better example by which to observe the learning process.  Babies have no sense of self-consciousness thus they cannot be hindered or distracted by it.  Babies simply try and try again.  I have watched my niece walk along the walls, furniture, or while supported by both hands.  One day I refused to take her other hand and only extended a finger for her to hold on to – she complied.  She was doing fine and then she lost her footing and she fell – broke my heart.  I then realized, falling is the best thing that could have happened to her.  She took a misstep and failed at Continue reading

Making Mistakes Like You Really Mean It!

Over the last few years I have become quite fascinated with learning – mostly by how it occurs and how we can become more aware and intentional of the process.  I believe that if we can understand how learning occurs most efficiently and effectively, we can leverage that to significantly improve our own attempts at learning.

Score or miss, this looks like a spectacular attempt!

Every week I spend several mornings training at a soccer field.  I’m not training for a tryout or any particular event. In fact, I no longer play on a formal team since moving to NYC from St. Louis.  I simply want to get better at the game I love.  I watch the pros carefully to see what separates the best ones from the average.   Yesterday, I was working on penalty kicks and my goal was to consistently hit powerful shots into either of the upper corners of the goal.  The pros that have mastered this approach never get stopped because it is virtually impossible for a goalie to reach that extreme area of the goal given the proximity and velocity of the ball.  If they fail to score this way, it’s not because a goalie stopped the shot but because the kicker missed the target. Continue reading