How to Spot High-Quality Learning? The Nose Knows.

So here’s a question: does high-quality learning — by which I mean deep, deliberate practice — create a telltale facial expression, sort of like what a poker player would call a “tell”?

And if it does, can we use that tell as a guide?

In the book I talk about the “Clint Eastwood faces” I encountered in my reporting at the hotbeds. But lately I’ve been looking more deeply at those faces — the long, intense gaze, the tight mouth, the furrowed brow. One feature that seems to show up every time, whether in violin students or martial artists or algebra students: flared nostrils.

I know it sounds kind of strange. But maybe there’s a deeper biological mechanism going on here. Daniel Kahneman, in his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow, points out that our eyes dilate noticeably and uncontrollably when we concentrate on solving difficult problems. There’s also evidence that other automatic expressions — for instance, the tongue protruding slightly from the lips — have the benefit of immobilizing speech and thus improving concentration. Flared nostrils might be part of a larger set of advantageous reflexes, part of our evolution-built “focus face” we use when we employ all our mental energy to work through tough problems.

So if the nose knows, the real question is, can this knowledge be applied?

One idea: treat the flare like a flashing neon sign that says “Good Practice Happening Here.” That is, if you spot the flare, leave the practicer alone — they’re already in the zone on the edge of their ability where learning happens fastest. And if you don’t see it, alter the environment to create more reaching, more stretching, more failing and fixing. (Of course, this applies more in music and school than in sports, where noses tend to be moving around too fast to watch.)

The other question is, what other tells have you noticed? How do you know when a learner is “in the zone”?