Month: January 2014

A Free Learning App that Actually Works

meStudying_app_iconFor a few years now, I’ve been skeptical of the ever-growing wave of learning apps that use iPads and smartphones to teach math, language, art, and music.

As in, really skeptical.

While fantastically entertaining and beautifully designed, most of these apps fail what I’d call the Reality Test: they are inferior to learning the old-fashioned way, with your brain, body and the good old physical world. (Besides, as South Park wisely pointed out, there’s a slight but crucial difference between being skilled at Guitar Hero and being skilled at guitar.)

Then came last night.

Let me set the scene for you: it’s 10 p.m. and the temperature here in northeastern Ohio is approximately minus-478 degrees. School for tomorrow has been officially canceled. Jen and I are hanging out downstairs; the three girls are upstairs in full snow-day celebration mode, reveling in the unexpected late bedtime, the joy of no classes, pure freedom.

But something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. Then I hear a faint trumpet call, followed by yells of delight.

“What’s going on up there?” I ask. That’s when Jen tells me.

“They’re learning Spanish,” she says. “On an app.”

The truth tumbles out: the app (which is free) is called DuoLingo, and Jen has been secretly addicted for a few days, playing every spare moment. She’s already past 400 points, she tells me, and she can’t wait to get back to it, having just selected INSANE as her new daily level of practice time. And now it seems her new obsession has traveled, like a rogue virus, to the kids.

At first glance, DuoLingo doesn’t seem like much. You pick a level, and the a friendly voice poses a series of translation puzzles. Sometimes you are asked to speak a sentence. Sometimes you type what you hear, or pick the right translation from a series of options.

The secret to its appeal is the way it combines this sense of fun with smart individualized coaching. It nudges you to the edges of your ability and keeps you there, looping over material in various ways until you have it dialed in. Instead of tediously memorizing lists of words, you spend time solving tiny, engaging puzzles. Add in the razzle dazzle of medals, points, social competition and happy trumpets, and you’ve basically got a nutritional version of Candy Crush.

The other secret has less to do with the app and more to do with the nature of the skill itself. Language, unlike many other skills, is basically a massive interconnected ocean of information. DuoLingo works because it gives us space to splash around in that ocean, see what works, and repeat. It does exactly what a skilled coach does: creates a gamelike environment that keeps us reaching, over and over again, toward mastery. (Or, if you’re Jen, reaching for a reason to propose a family vacation to Spain.)

So does it work? Users (like this Slate writer) seem fairly ecstatic. I found this study (financed by DuoLingo’s parent company but conducted independently) showing that DuoLingo users learned the equivalent of a college semester in 34 hours. Around our house, the trash-talking has already started: Katie has promised to defeat her mother in the levels race.

So here’s the next question: What else am I missing? What other learning apps are useful? (Has anybody tried Coach’s Eye, for instance?) I’d love to start building a list of learning apps that actually work. Please feel free to add any of your recommendations in the comments section below.

How to Prepare for a Big Moment

11954348431437107035Gerald_G_Balance_Scale.svg.hiWhen it comes to approaching a major performance test, most of us follow advice that can be distilled into three words: Focus on success.

That is, we prepare ourselves by banishing doubt and visualizing the positive. We vividly imagine ourselves making all the right moves with fluid grace, with zero mistakes or missteps. And it feels good.

What’s interesting, though, is that when you look closely at world-class performers, most don’t use this feel-good approach. In fact, they do the opposite — what you might call the Feel-Bad-First approach.

It goes like this: First they focus on the mistakes — and figure out, in detail, how they will react to them. Then they visualize the positive.

A great example of this is the Green Berets, the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers. Teams spend weeks training for a mission (most of which happen at night). On the day of the mission they follow a two-part routine.

First, they spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined, and linked to an appropriate response: if the helicopter crash-lands, we’ll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we’ll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we’ll do Z.

After some hours of doing this, the team takes a break and has lunch together. They socialize, relax, and maybe take a nap.

Then they spend the afternoon in phase two, talking about everything going exactly right. They review each move, visualizing each step, and vividly imagine it going 100 percent perfectly.

You might call this Balanced-Positive Approach: equally split between negative and positive, and ending on the positive. Notice the complete wall of separation between the two phases. They don’t toggle back and forth between positive and negative. The two phases are kept as separate as night and day: first comes all negative, then all positive.

Many top performers (Peyton Manning and Steve Jobs jump to mind) embody this approach. Half the time, they are persnickety, chronically dissatisfied, negative, doubtful, obsessed with potential failures. The other half of the time, they’re incredibly positive, confident performers.

This isn’t surprising. The balanced-positive approach helps you avoid the pitfalls of positivity — namely, that you get surprised and demoralized by failure — and replaces it with a preparation that matches the reality of the world and also leaves you ready for performance. Good things and bad things will happen, and you can’t control either. But you can prepare.

If you have any other tips on preparation you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

Parenting a Talented Kid: A New Approach

Mikaela Shiffrin, age 7

Quick thought experiment:

Let’s say you’re the parent of a kid who really, really loves skiing. (It could be soccer or chess or tennis or math, but let’s make it skiing.)

Let’s say that by grade school, your kid is dominating their peers. Stories about their prowess begin to spread. Then it happens: you get approached by coaches, scouts, national-team types. They have an important question for you:

Your child is brilliantly talented, and their talent requires support. We can provide your child with expert training, the best coaching, and world-class competition. Let us take charge — let your child join our program, train and travel with us — and we will help them reach their potential. 

What do you do?

For many of us, the answer is simple: we’d say yes. It’s the same logic you use when you take your car to a mechanic instead of fixing it yourself: experts know best. (Never mind the dizzying contact high you’d get from having a kid in a world-class talent-development program.) It would be almost irresistible.

And it also might be exactly the wrong thing to do.

Meet 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin. Everyone will be meeting her soon enough. As a World Cup slalom champion, she’s likely to become one of the big stories of next month’s Sochi Winter Olympics. (I recommend reading this marvelous profile by Bill Pennington.)

But to understand why, you should understand that Shiffrin is a useful case study for the reverse approach to parenting a talented kid — what you might call the Do-it-Yourself approach to talent development. It’s an approach that focuses on 1) valuing the daily skill-development process over competition; 2) maintaining family normalcy.

As her father Jeff recalled:

“These top-level coaches would tell me that Mikaela was just ripping up a racecourse. And I would say: ‘Yeah, I agree, but she’s just 9 years old.’ And they’d say, ‘What are your plans for her?’ And I’d answer: ‘Plans? Well, tomorrow she’s trying out for a part as the angel in the Christmas play.’”

In the Shiffrins’ telling, much of Mikaela’s development was built on homespun methods. To teach balance, they bought a unicycle. Instead of racing big courses, Mikaela spent time skiing an icy 300-foot hill, working on perfecting her technique. In summer, they used in-line skates and broomsticks to simulate slalom gates.

To be sure, Shiffrin competed at a high level, and worked with some of the finest coaches around. But every decision was  built around the daily process of mastering skills — which captured Mikaela’s imagination more than any medal. As Kirk Dwyer, Shiffrin’s coach and headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, puts it,

“She truly believed that the focus should be on the process of getting better and not race results. She does that to this day. Everyone on the World Cup says they want to race like they practice, but how many actually do it? Mikaela can because she’s not thinking about trying to win. She’s thinking about getting better.”

If the big sports programs are akin to the factory-farm approach to developing talent, you might call this approach Free Range Mastery. It sounds revolutionary, but it’s really not all that different from the approach followed by Bode Miller, Serena and Venus Williams, and of course, Tiger Woods. A few reasons why it works:

  • 1) True ownership of the skill-development process. In big programs, the power is held by the coaches, creating a tendency for the kid to become a highly obedient automatons — achieving for others, not themselves. In the free-range approach, however, the dynamic is reversed. The kid (and parents) remain the master of the daily process, able to innovate, test, and ultimately drive the improvement process.
  • 2) More adaptability. Big programs, by necessity, tend to put everyone into categories and timelines, with the associated grid of expectations. If you don’t achieve X by age Y, then you have the risk of being perceived (and perceiving yourself) as a failure. But talent development is never a one-size-fits-all experience, and the line of progression is rarely smooth. Keeping things loose — being able to take some time off, or test-drive a new coach or fresh approach — is beneficial in the long run.
  • 3) Fewer demotivating experiences. A kid’s desire is a fragile thing, and nothing extinguishes it faster than getting crushed on a big stage. Controlling the big-pond competitive environment allows skills (especially emotional skills) to grow at their own pace.
  •  4) Embracing the power of normalcy. Doing chores, homework, and being a regular kid whenever possible acts like a powerful drug, helping to build emotional skills, resilience, and the foundation to deal with whatever comes along.

But perhaps the biggest reason the DIY approach works is because it is aligned with the way skill actually develops: not through splashy public accomplishments but by something quieter and closer to the bone.

Jeff Shiffrin put it best:

“Some people might call our approach intense. But it’s not, because the motivation is not to be better than other people at something. The motivation comes from a belief that almost anything can be mastered if you’re willing to put in the hours to master it. If you’re going to do something, do it as best as you can.”