Month: January 2013

Eloquence is Overrated: Why You Should Teach Like You Tweet

Growing up, the two best movies about teaching were “Dead Poets’ Society” and “Stand and Deliver.” The key moments in both movies were when the teacher made eloquent and amazing speeches that made the hair go up on the back of your neck, when suddenly the students — and you — saw the world in a new and wonderful way. Those movies were totally great.

Also, totally wrong. Not because inspiration isn’t important — it is. But because that’s not how effective teachers really teach.

Great teachers don’t make inspiring speeches to groups. They send short, super-clear bits of targeted information to individuals, which helps them make the right move. They’re like a really useful twitter feed — Do this… Now try that… Reach here… Now here.

We saw a beautiful example of that this fall, when Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and largely confined to his hospital bed. An interim coach took over the team, but Pagano kept coaching, sending in small, targeted messages via text and phone.

Before a big November 26 game against the Bills, Pagano sent a message to punt returner T.Y. Hilton that said just three words: “Stretch and cut” — in other words, stretch out the defense by running horizontally, then cut upfield.

No speech. No elaborate explanation, no inspiration. Just three words. And it worked. Early in the game, Hilton received a punt, stretched the defense, cut upfield, ran 75 yards and scored; the Colts won.

The deeper reason that this kind of tweet-style teaching works has to do with the fact that even the simplest instruction is, underneath, incredibly complicated. There are four basic steps for any communication:

  • Step 1) The teacher/coach has to think up the right idea.
  • Step 2) They have translate that idea into the right words
  • Step 3) They have to deliver those words in such a way that they can be understood and retained by the learner
  • Step 4) The learner has to translate those words into the right action

The simplest teaching — stretch and cut — is actually a complex, fragile four-step chain, with each step holding the potential for misunderstanding and mistake.

Teaching is not about eloquence; it’s about information and interpersonal skills — delivering the right signal to the right person at the right moment.

Which is, when you think about it, pretty damn inspiring.

Avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: Why Parents Shouldn’t Help Their Kids Too Much

One of the hardest things about parenting is avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: the temptingly wrong idea that parents should assist their kids through their struggles: i.e. speedily intervening when they show frustration, smoothing over rough patches.

While there’s lots of solid thinking on the problems with parental over-helpfulness (my favorite is Blessings of the Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel), I’ve never seen the case made quite so clearly as in this short letter from an Alameda, California, mom named Kate Bassford Baker, who posted it on the Alameda Patch. (You can read the whole thing here.)

Dear Other Parents At The Park:

Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.

I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.

They’re not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can’t do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What’s more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it. It is not my job — and it is certainly not yours — to prevent my children from feeling frustration, fear, or discomfort. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that those things are not the end of the world, and can be overcome or used to their advantage.

To that, I’d add the fact that times of struggle and failure are precisely when the most learning occurs — the “sweet spot,” as psychologists call it, when kids go to the edge of their ability and a little beyond. What looks like struggle and failure is, in fact, an act of construction — the making and honing of new connections in their brain.

All of which means that leaving kids alone has three benefits: 1) they develop emotional resilience; 2) they build skills; 3) you get more free time. In scientific literature, I believe that’s referred to as a win-win-win.

The Agility Loop

We love agility — that telltale combination of speed and nimbleness that marks great performers — not just because it’s beautiful, but also because it’s useful.

Quick thought experiment: Go find the best chess player in your area. Offer to bet them $100 on a game if they’ll play you under the following conditions:

  • 1) you give up half your pieces before the game starts
  • 2) you move twice for every one of your opponent’s moves

What you’ll find is surprising. Despite being outsized; despite your opponent’s higher skill level, you will win. In fact, you can give up practically all the pieces and still pull off victory because of a simple reason: you are more agile.

We see that same pattern at the core of many recent successes in sports and business. Think of the revolutionary no-huddle offenses succeeding in college and the NFL; or Obama’s block-by-block data-driven strategy of the 2012 election, or the continued success of the lean-startup model — all of which are the same story: speed and agility trump all other qualities — including skill, size, and experience.

So, where does agility come from? How do you build it?

We get a useful answer from an unlikely source: a fighter pilot named John “Forty Second” Boyd. Boyd, a Korean war pilot who went on to be head of instruction at the USAF Weapons School, was famous for his standing bet with trainees: he could, from a position of disadvantage, defeat any of them in a dogfight in 40 seconds or less.

Boyd’s secret? The OODA Loop, which Boyd developed to increase the speed and agility of fighter pilots, and which has since been adopted by many sports teams and businesses. It works like this:

O: Observe: collect the data. Figure out exactly where you are, what’s happening.

O: Orient: analyze/synthesize the data to form an accurate picture. 

D: Decide: select an action from possible options

A: Action: execute the action, and return to step (1)

The genius of Boyd’s idea is that it shows that speed and agility are not about physical reflexes — they’re really about information processing. They’re about building more/better feedback loops. The more high-quality OODA loops you make, the faster you get.

When you tune into it, you start to see OODA feedback loops everywhere: in Messi’s seeing-eye passes, in Google’s quicksilver iterations of its online products, in the daily routines of successful stock traders. They’re all fast, but they succeed because they are ruthless about following the OODA loop. They observe, orient, decide, and act — and then start the cycle over.

The real key in using OODA loops is to embrace clarity. You have to be 100 percent merciless about figuring out where you are, what’s really happening, and where you want to go. If you shade the truth to protect your ego, you lose the chance to improve.

So here’s a takeaway: in order to get more agile, the first step is to be brutally honest with yourself.

(PS – Big thanks to reader Andrew Lingenfelter, who pointed out OODA loops in a comment back in July.)

“The World Sends Us Garbage. We Send Back Music.”

You should watch this short clip — not because it’s an remarkable story (which it is) or because it will make your eyes well up (which it might), but because it’s a good reminder of two basic facts we tend to overlook:

1) Respecting and caring for the tools of your skill — what some educators call “the enchantment of everyday objects” — ignites powerful motivation

2) Talent is everywhere

How to Get Better Feedback

Question: Who is the fastest learner in the world?

That is, if there was a magical machine that could accurately measure the learning speed of every person on the planet — every writer, musician, math student, chess player, artist, and athlete — who would come out on top?

My answer: a kid learning to skateboard.

You’ve seen it happen: you hand a kid a skateboard, they start messing around, and before you know it — without any coaches, instruction books, or classrooms — they are crazily, stupidly, mythically skilled.

The question is, why?

The answer is feedback.

Skateboarders learn incredibly quickly because they receive a rich, continuous, useful stream of high-quality feedback. Every action creates an immediate and crystal-clear consequence. Mistakes can be detected; patterns intuited, brain circuitry swiftly built.

(Picture the brain of a kid balanced on a skateboard: glowing with engagement; blueprinted with models, keenly attuned to the edge — their brain is a neon-lit Las Vegas of high-quality feedback signals. Now picture the brain of a corporate employee listening to a lecture in a training session. See what I mean?)

It’s useful to judge feedback like you would judge the quality of a GPS mapping app on your phone: the best ones are real-time, detailed, and crystal-clear. The problem is that most of the time — especially at work and in school — the feedback we get isn’t timely or clear. So we tend to wander, and get lost.

In other words, the feedback question is really a design question: in a world that can be vague and mushy, how do you tighten the loop, and deliver the right signal in a timely way?

Karen May, vice president for people development at Google, has invented a method she calls “speedback.” It works like this: partway through a training session she will tell everyone to pair off and sit knee to knee, and give them three minutes to answer one simple question: “What advice would you give me based on the experience you’ve had with me here?” Participants say that it’s some of the best feedback they’ve ever gotten.

Compressing space works well too. Since I wrote about the effectiveness of Brazli’s futbol de salao (football in the room) for teaching soccer skills, I’ve come across numerous examples of coaches shrinking space to increase reps and improve feedback, from hockey to swimming to baseball to factory assembly lines.

You can also compress information: many good teachers have developed the technique of interleaving their lectures with a short quizzes, given not for grades but to help students and teacher determine where their skill levels are at.

In every case, the same rule applies: the more timely, vivid, accurate feedback you get, the more skill you can build.  And if you have any examples of useful methods you use to boost feedback, I’d love to hear them.