Most days in my New York City neighborhood, as I walk down the sidewalk under the ramparts of the George Washington Bridge, I stop for a while to watch the skateboarders practice their ollies. A group of kids from about 11 to 15, they hang out on a little-used strip of asphalt across from the bus station, working on their moves in a way that seems at once fluid, social, and intensely focused.
Even when they seem to be taking a break, not doing anything much, they’re actually watching each other closely. Sometimes they exchange a few words of critique or advice. Then they’ll go back and try something new, again and again.
Like Dan Coyle in The Talent Code and many others, for the last couple of years we at What Kids Can Do have been digging into the cognitive research on what’s really going on beneath that bridge—and in other places where kids are getting really good at what they do.
The kind of practice that really moves us ahead – “deliberate practice” – requires explicit elements, I’ve learned — and those elements look a lot like what those young skateboarders are doing as they work at their ollies under the bridge:
• They see something excellent that they want to know and be able to do.
• They go after that thing at a challenge level that’s just right for them.
• They break the challenge into parts and rehearse each move in a focused, attentive way, at intervals, until it comes easily each time.
• Someone notices their mistakes and helps them adjust what they’re doing.
• They savor the small successes that come along — and then they look for the next challenge.
It’s what every good teacher wishes were happening in the classroom. But it takes time and persistence — the famous 10,000 hours we’ve read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and other books drawing on that same research about achieving high performance.
And as our WKCD team documents the lives and learning of adolescents, it fascinates me how many of those 10,000 hours for kids happen “outside the lines.”
Kids spend about 5,000 hours in high school alone: six to seven hours a day, 185 days a year, for four years. Homework adds to that time, at least in theory. But when I ask kids where they experience “deliberate practice”—using the criteria we’ve spelled out above—they’re more often talking about skateboarding than about science class.
We’re going to use this space to explore with all of you who care about kids — teachers, parents, coaches, caregivers — what can bring that kind of practice into all the places where we interact with youth.
The kids under that bridge are showing us that it’s a way of being, not a curriculum. It’s at once playful and purposeful, and its result is high performance.
In this space, we’ll focus our discussions by watching and listening to kids themselves. We hope you’ll tell us what you’re seeing and hearing as you work with youth—and also share what you’re wondering and trying.
I’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to the best post I receive on this in the next week. So let’s go—it’s time to practice!
For reference and discussion, download What_Is_Deliberate_Practice? (PDF)