Month: September 2013

Four Lessons from the Future of Talent Development

6a00d8341d55ee53ef012876940c9a970c-400wiOne of the parts of this job that I like best is hearing about talent-development startups. You know, those crazy, smart, ambitious folks who are quietly reinventing the way we learn.

Together, they’re part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.

Here are two I especially like.

1) Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, founded in 2012, teaches software coding in the same way that the Navy SEALs teach marksmanship — as an intensive, immersive, no-holds-barred boot camp. They transform students (many with no previous technical experience) into proficient coders in the space of three months. And it works: 90 percent of Bitmaker grads have been hired by tech firms.

Bitmaker does it, in part, by reverse-engineering the educational process. Rather than taking the theory-based academic approach, founder Matt Gray and his partners asked 50 software companies what skills really mattered. Bitmaker built its curriculum around that feedback: an 80-hour prep course followed by nine weeks of project-based learning at Bitmaker’s headquarters — which, naturally, is open 24-7, the better to replicate the intensely immersive startup environment.

Here’s what one 18-year-old Bitmaker student wrote in his blog:

“The education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students to become workers by, for example, having them follow instructions and do repetitive tasks. This resonates with my experience in college and I didn’t want to spend a big chunk of my life doing things that weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t want to learn so I could get a diploma or a job, but so I could be empowered to affect the world in the way I want to.”

2) Joy of the People, a Minnesota youth soccer program that aims to reinvent how kids learn the game. (It’s named after the famous Brazilian player Garrincha, who was so exciting that Brazilians called him Allegria do Povo — Joy of the People).

JOTP founder Ted Koerten has a simple idea: to provide American kids with the chance to learn soccer exactly as Brazilians learn it: having lots of fun in small spaces. So he got rid of elite teams and elite travel and instead built a kid magnet: a series of small inflatable soccer fields — smaller space, smaller goals, with barriers to produce more continuous play. Younger kids are focused almost entirely on fun; older kids on more deliberate practice.

As Koerten told me in an email:

 The old models tend to structure youth soccer (and all youth sports) heavy on the deliberate practice…. The dark side of the idea that players are made is that now mad scientists are all trying to make them. But our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.

Koerten is full of ideas: for instance, he has the kids play with balls that vary in size from tiny to large, and employs a tennis-ball machine to increase touches. He’s interested in cross-pollinating with newly invented sports like Puckelball. And it’s working: he’s drawing 600 kids a week.

Which brings us to the deeper question: what lessons do these organic, free-range models provide? How can they help us improve and innovate our own talent-development spaces? Here are four:

  • Focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.
  • Put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places — rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.
  • Design for lots of mixing. People aren’t  segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.
  • Focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.

Do you know of any new, surprising, and/or innovative talent-development programs? I’d love to hear about them.

Best Parenting Tip Ever

parentchildiconParenting is hard, because it’s complicated and full of doubt. As a result, we parents tend to try harder — because we want, quite naturally, to get involved, to fix things. We think it’s about us.

Which is why I love the approach of Rob Miller and Bruce E. Brown, who run a coaching outfit called Proactive Coaching LLC. In their quest to understand what makes a successful parent, Miller and Brown used a stunningly simple method: They asked kids what worked.  

For three decades, Miller and Brown made a habit of asking college-age athletes about the ways their parents had made a positive or negative impact. After several hundred interviews with a wide cross-section of kids, their informal survey had two insightful discoveries.

Number one: what kids hate most, by an overwhelming margin, is the conversations during the ride home after the game. You know, that quiet, strained, slightly uncomfortable time when parents ask questions, give praise, offer critiques, and generally get involved by saying things like:

Great job today. So what happened on that play?

What did your coach tell the team after the game?

Do you think the team could have hustled more? 

These types of moments, Miller and Brown point out, are well intentioned, and often contain truth, but the timing is toxic. The moments after a game are not the time for judgement or pressure and definitely not for instruction (which is the job of the coach, not the parent). In fact, many of the kids said they preferred having grandparents attend games, because they are more joyful and less pressurizing than parents.

But it’s not all bad news. Because there’s a second finding to emerge from their work, and it might be the best parenting tip I’ve ever read.

The kids reported there was one phrase spoken by parents that brought them happiness. One simple sentence that made them feel joyful, confident, and fulfilled. Just six words.

I love to watch you play.

That’s it. Six words that are the exact opposite of the uncomfortable car-ride home. Because they reframe your relationship — you stop being the watchful supervisor, and you start being a steady, supportive presence.

I love to watch you play. 

A signal that sends the simplest, most powerful signal: this is about you. I am your parent, not your coach or your judge. You make me really, really happy.

I love to watch you play. 

Try it out, like this parent did. I know I’m going to. Let me know how it goes.

Pressure Performance: Do You Have the X Factor?

DownloadedFileA couple days ago I was in Canada talking with a group of Olympic coaches. Late into the night, after a Molson or two, the conversation turned to the question of performance under pressure. One coach (a former Olympic mogul skier, as it happened) put it something like this:

You’re standing on the top of the mountain at the starting gate, clock counting down. Twenty thousand people are screaming, millions more are watching on television. I don’t care how much you train. Some people can come through in that moment, and some people cannot. 

In other words, is there an X factor? Do high-pressure performers – Michael Jordan, Shaun White — heck, let’s throw in Winston Churchill and Stonewall Jackson — have an uncanny natural ability to shine in crucial moments when the rest of us fall apart?

I think this is an important question, mostly because we rely on the X Factor all the time to explain success. It’s the Sasquatch of high performance — a powerful, shadowy entity that explains everything. Is it real? And if so, how do we get more of it?

Here’s what I think:

  • 1. At the very top levels, studies show that clutch performers are a persuasive mirage (here and here). Performance under pressure tracks extremely closely with the rest of performance — great performers remain great, average performers remain average. After all, these people rise to the top level precisely because they have the ability to deliver under pressure. The clutchness we perceive is a function of good old luck and our intense desire to believe in it.
  • 2. At lower levels (where most of us live), performing under pressure is essentially about emotional control — as Kipling put it, of keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. And that is where intensive practice seems to make a difference (for an example, check out this article on teaching emotional control in school).
  • 3. In my experience, top performers make a habit of pre-creating pressure situations in vivid detail, so that when the time comes, they’re ready.

For example, many concert musicians use performance practice. They simulate the precise conditions (same formal clothes, same chair, sometimes even the same auditorium) and run through their program exactly as if it’s opening night. Many sports teams routinely rehearse the last moments of games, piping in crowd noise, and increase tempo beyond what they might see in a game. Special Forces soldiers spend virtually all of their training inside a pre-created, live-ammo, high-pressure world — not to break them, but rather to accustom them to it.

So the question isn’t, Do you have the magical X Factor?

The question is, How do you specifically train for high-pressure moments?

That’s not to say that everyone would succeed equally — after all, luck and emotional temperament do matter. But with smart training, you can make them matter a lot less.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories of the ways you accomplish this kind of training in your life, or in the lives of the people you teach.

The Three-Word Study Tip

Study-TipsIt’s official: summer has ended. Farewell, beach chair. Hello, beeping alarm clock.

It’s also Study Tip Season — that time of year when kids and parents start thinking about how to improve their lives by studying more effectively and efficiently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d try to distill the best advice into a few simple words. Three, to be precise.

The first word is reach. The most effective studying happens when you’re slightly out of your comfort zone, when you go the edge of your ability and make an intense, targeted effort beyond it. This is how our brains make new connections — not by leaning back and letting information wash over them, but by leaning forward, making mistakes, and fixing those mistakes.

(Parent tip: when your kid is struggling on the edge of their ability, resist the urge to heroically swoop in and rescue them. Instead, let them know that those are the moments when progress happens.)

So if you have to learn material in a textbook, don’t just read it over and over. Instead, read it once, close the book, and then summarize the main points on a separate sheet of paper.

If you’re a fan of highlighting (which research has shown is not that effective), you might want to follow it up by organizing all your highlighted material into an outline.

The best way to reach? Make a habit of testing yourself. Testing yourself works best of all, because it’s a double-reach: first you have to figure out the important questions to ask (one reach), then you have to answer (another).

The second word is loop. Embrace the idea of learning stuff by repeating it in short sessions over a number of days. In other words, don’t study in a straight line, but in a series of short loops, returning to the material over and over. This technique, called spaced repetition, works because each repetition embeds the information more strongly in our brains.

So instead of studying just today’s work, go over work from the previous few days as well. Instead of trying to learn all the Spanish vocabulary words the night before the quiz, learn a dozen each night, and keep going over them. And, of course, avoid cramming, which feels really satisfying, but doesn’t work that well.

The third word is mix. Our natural instinct is to attack homework like a dutiful worker on an assembly line, focusing on a single area for large chunks of time. But what works better is to mix it up — to interleave different types of problems and allow our brains to navigate the conceptual landscape, to make connections that might have otherwise been missed.

Instead of focusing on one type of algebra problem, switch it up by doing several different types of problems, so your brain has to sort through the different possibilities. Instead of studying one narrow aspect of science (say, cell division), try to link it with other, related areas. Study like a great athlete works on their game — working on a bit of A, a bit of B, a bit of C, and combining them.

So that’s it: reach, loop, and mix. Your brain will thank you. For more study tips, here’s a useful compilation from one of my favorite writers, Annie Murphy Paul: as well as another from The Washington Post.

Though now I have a confession to make.

There’s one more word, which might contain the most effective study tip of all.

Clue: It has five letters, and begins with S. Any guesses?