Defining "mastery"

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

Defining “mastery”

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

Just Listen: Kids Talk About Collaboration

Working as a group has advantages, Garlyn told me: “You can bring all those ideas together and come up with something bigger than what you would do on your own.” Yet, like most kids, she sees disadvantages, too. What if the other kids don’t all do their parts? Listen as she weighs the pros and cons:

But just as the social elements of learning can jump-start interest in a topic, so collaboration often clarifies and spurs students’ thinking. Kenneth noted that peers are often better than the teacher in explaining things so kids “get” them.

For Michecarly, whose geometry class was assigned to create a scale model, working in a small group made all the difference. “We helped each other with little details,” he said, “’cause we were each good at a certain part.”

Like every skill, teamwork takes coaching. When kids reflect on their most successful collaborations, I notice, their teachers had always provided deliberate practice in negotiating the dynamics of a working group. These students learned how to assign individual parts to play and how to trade off tasks. They had protocols by which to fill in the gaps of each other’s knowledge and to adapt as the work developed and changed. They had respectful ways to assess each other’s participation.

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series of 11 short clips in which kids give their views on collaborating at school.

Then ask yourself how you coach collaboration in your classroom. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to whomever shares the best reply in the Comments field below.

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Just Listen: Kids Talk About Life at Home

“It’s kinda like I just had a baby,” Wedjeena told me, talking about her ten-month-old brother. “He’ll pull my homework, crumple it up. Eat it.”

As the winter holidays arrive, adults tend to think of youth as the receivers of our largesse. It’s easy to forget that many youth go home from school every day to shoulder the responsibilities of adults.

Whether it’s babysitting, doing household chores, or translating for non-English-speakers, their contributions matter enormously to their families and their communities outside school.

But they may be invisible to their teachers. What would you do differently if you knew the work that these four students are doing out of school? How might you celebrate and build on their strengths?

Take 5 minutes to listen to what they say. Then pass their voices along, and let us know what you think!

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What if we made a robot?

If you had the chance to spend some time cooking up a cool invention with a bunch of your friends, wouldn’t you want to at least try it?

That’s what learning starts with, when kids get involved in robotics, a branch of engineering that merges math and science in what they call “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

Students all over the country participate in the big competitions that pitch their club’s robot against those of others. Usually they are part of a club, but sometimes their school creates a course that centers on building a robot and entering it in the contest.

As Molly and R.J. tell us in this video, it’s a great way for kids to overcome any bias against math and science and get their hands into the real thing. And the fun of doing it as a team gives them a lot of practice in collaboration, critique, revision, and all the other habits of expert engineers.

Please, write in and tell us when you’ve had this much fun! We’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses we receive.

Shut your eyes and pretend

Remember “Mad Hot Ballroom” — the movie about middle school dance contests in New York City? I’ve always wanted to get better at ballroom myself, so I tracked down a couple of eighth grade ballroom dancers to tell me what it took.

At Tysheena and Dan’s middle school, kids can take ballroom dance for their physical education class. (Their teacher was also the principal!) Once they get to eighth grade, they can try out for a school team that competes in the city competitions. The contest adds an extra thrill, Tysheena said, but it’s clear that she and Dan are also motivated by the sheer pleasure of doing it well.

So try this when you watch this video: Shut your eyes and pretend Dan and Tysheena are talking about learning some academic subject–say history, or English composition. What might a classroom teacher learn from the way they talk about rising from novice to mastery stage?

Send in your thoughts! If yours is the best comment that comes in, I’ll mail you a free copy of Fires in the Mind as soon as it’s off the press!

‘With all due respect’: How debate sharpens thinking

‎”I was always the one arguing with teachers,” said Posha, a high school debater from Newark, NJ. “You gave me an order, and I’m like, I’m not doing this!” But when she pushes back these days, debate has given her a new demeanor of confidence and respect. “Now it’s: I think you’re wrong because,” she said. “I have more information to back up my argument, instead of just yelling.”

Debate is growing fast as a practice to sharpen the minds and skills of urban youth whose voices have long been ignored. In this short video—one of WKCD’s “Case Studies in Practice” series—two Newark students describe how becoming debaters has taught them to do research and analysis, to speak up in public, and to disagree using words, not force.

“You pick a topic out of a hat and you just get up and speak on that,” says Michael, who was in trouble for fighting before the debate coach tapped him for the school team. “Everybody started thinking on their feet.” At first, he said, “I was obliterated.” But his competitive instinct made him work hard to nail the skills he needed: reading, writing, thinking, and effective speaking.

These young debaters take up serious subjects; this year, it’s the U.S. military and police presence in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey. Their practice room is lined with books and students pore over them intensely.

The Jersey Urban Debate League to which Newark’s team belongs is part of the Urban Debate Network, an initiative of the Open Society Institute. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) currently exist in 24 of the nation’s largest cities, with over 500 urban high schools participating. Almost half of these offer a credit-bearing course in argumentation and debate, and some districts incorporate formal debate coaching throughout the regular curriculum. More than 40,000 public school students have competed in UDLs, the network estimates.

Results are clear. A peer-reviewed study of the Chicago Debate League suggests that African American male students raised their GPAs by 50% of a letter grade and were 70% more likely to graduate from high school than non-debating peers. Compared to their non-debating peers, African American male debaters were 70% more likely to reach the ACT College Ready benchmark in Reading and twice as likely to reach the College Ready benchmark in English.

Michael said his grades, too, improved tremendously. “The season’s over, my last year is over,” he mused. “But I got into that habit, and that work ethic is going to stick with me. It’s good for yourself to know these things. You learn a lot of stuff that people should be knowing about, but actually don’t.”

Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Learning on a different wavelength

You can hear the beats sounding loud from the open windows of passing cars on a balmy afternoon in downtown Oakland, and you may catch snatches of a radio host interviewing the guest of the hour, or a commentary you wish you could hear more of.

But you might never know, walking past the sleek four-story downtown Youth Radio building at 1701 Broadway, that just inside it young people from 15 to 21 are working at newsroom desks and in soundproof studios to send those voices and that music into their community and the larger world.

Since Youth Radio began in 1990, it has introduced some of the freshest voices in broadcast journalism to listeners who tune into local stations, National Public Radio, and, most recently, streaming Internet sites. It trains 1,300 youth each year to develop core competencies in audio, video, web and print and to produce the highest quality original media for the widest possible audience. An estimated 27 million people hear and read the often-overlooked perspectives of young people through Youth Radio’s work each year.

However, Youth Radio also provides a compelling example of collaborative learning through peer apprenticeships, whose effects reach far into the lives and futures of Bay Area youth.

From the moment they come in off the street to fill out an application, these young broadcasters start building and sharing their skills—not just in research, writing, speaking, and media production but in workplace interactions, personal relationships, and life management.

This video presents the powerful 4-part strategy through which Youth Radio strengthens those skills through deliberate practice. It’s worth studying closely, through the voices of two young participants, Denise Tejada and Shaw Killip, whose lives it changed. Send it on to a teacher who needs a lift this week!

Teachers as experts in . . . inquiry?

A study just published in Science magazine sure makes one think twice about how we deliver “content knowledge” the classroom. The method by which a course is taught, it indicates, may be even more important than the instructor’s background.

In a college physics class, listening to a lecture by a highly experienced and respected professor yielded far less learning than an inquiry-focused class conducted by less “qualified” instructors, the study found. Students gave positive reviews to the lecturer, but when they took weekly tests on the material, they faltered. The reseachers themselves were surprised at how little the students had learned, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In contrast, a control group performed more than twice as well when their teachers—a research associate and a graduate student—used discussions, active learning, and assignments in which students had to grapple with both new and old information.

The secret? These students had time to synthesize and incorporate new ideas from the lecture into their prior knowledge and experiences.

The teachers less credentialed in physics had been coached in a teaching method based on “deliberate practice,” which combined in-class practice and frequent formative assessments (such as pretests) with an emphasis on real-world applications. (For more on deliberate practice, check out our Resources section.)

It made me think of my visit last week to the NYC iSchool, an extraordinary public high school in New York City that regards its teachers as generalists, not content specialists. The school has taken its technology-rich environment as an opportunity to deepen the deliberate practice of inquiry across the content areas.

Students get through the required state Regents exams as quickly as possible—often in ninth and tenth grades—largely by taking online courses in core curriculum areas. The rest of the curriculum consists of inquiry-based projects, often extending across the years.

One science class I visited, for example, was designing a “green roof” for the school. The teacher was no landscape architect, but she sure knew how to get students asking questions. Every stage of the project had kids figuring out how to find out information, whether that meant parsing city safety regulations or observing the angle of the noonday sun on the roof. Students’ design sketches covered the classroom walls; an architect would soon visit the class to lend advice.

Learning to teach like this requires a lot of coaching, and iSchool teachers get it via regular collegial observations and debriefings of their practice. The focus is on facilitating active learning among these very diverse students and on closely following their individual progress.

Nobody was pontificating from the front of the room in the science class I watched. Everybody had to think very hard together about the things they needed to learn more about. The teacher offered a prime model for asking good questions.

Who wants to do the study on how these kids will do in college and later life?

‘Where Baghdad At?’

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

'Where Baghdad At?'

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

When inquiry is the homework

When I ask teachers what they ask their students to practice, most of them talk about homework. But when is homework just busywork—and when is it the kind of “deliberate practice” that really makes the learning stick?

In a three-hour workshop I facilitated last week, 30 teachers combed through their homework assignments to compare them to the criteria for deliberate practice. They asked themselves:

  • Does this homework ask each student to practice something that the student hasn’t yet mastered? Does the student clearly see its purpose?
  • When students are asked to repeat or rehearse something, does it require them to focus? Or can they do it without really paying attention?

One fourth-grade math teacher said that his biggest goal was to get his students to rip through routine calculations (like the multiplication table) in the shortest possible time. He wanted them to have the numbers down cold, so they wouldn’t have to think twice when they needed them.

But even though a lot of his students could do that, he noticed something troubling. When confronted with mathematical questions deriving from the world around them—like how long it would take to fill a five-gallon jug with water—they couldn’t tell the difference between a wild guess and a reasonable estimate.

Even before they needed to know their times-tables, his kids needed practice in mathematical reasoning. On multiple-choice standardized tests, they were spending too much time laboriously considering answers that couldn’t possibly be true.

Together these teachers brainstormed homework activities that might give students practice in this crucial thinking skill. For example, what about introducing a real-world dilemma, then asking kids to estimate a reasonable range in which the answer might fall? They could share their thinking in small groups the next day, with the teacher coaching them through the calculations that would show who came closest.

This kind of homework gives students practice in the thinking habits experts use when they approach problems. And it can be done in every subject area, from science to literature to history.

When kids learn to ask good questions, they care more about finding out answers that make sense. That generates a need for collaboration, for considering the perspectives of those who may disagree, and for analyzing different routes to a solution.

How do you give homework in “asking good questions”? Send in the details, and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind!

Learning by heart

What can you still recite that you learned by heart (yesterday or years ago)? Justin Snider in the HechingerEd blog makes the case for memorization that reflects my views in many ways. He writes:

Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.” But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?

Snider’s answer, along with that of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, is yes. And I agree:

Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”

Like Snider, I’m a particularly big fan of memorizing poems by heart, whether it’s the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English or the Billy Collins “Litany” recited by a three-year-old boy in this video. But I would never call the child’s feat “rote memorization”—because (as Willingham implies) “rote” implies the lack of engagement, attention, focus. Snider is right when he observes:

Notice what the young child’s intonation on certain lines reveals: he hasn’t learned this poem “without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way” — Random House’s definition of “rote” learning. He’s wiser and more aware of what he’s saying than many of us might initially think.

In my view, memorizing poems deepens one’s sense of language so effectively that I see it as central to the work of becoming a good writer. It lodges beauty in the brain and at once in the heart, if you’ll allow me that romantic view. Do mathematicians make the same case for memorizing the first 100 digits of π? Is it, for them, a kind of play, which could even come in handy sometime (as with Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” song listing the periodic table)? Do only some things qualify as worth the trouble and other not? Is it actually about winning at Jeopardy?

Snider sets out his case for memorization. It’s a challenge that’s satisfying to meet. (He credits Broadway actors with that satisfaction, but not their Hollywood counterparts.) It’s good exercise for your brain, like crosswords, and comes in handy when you lose your smartphone. But here’s the one I agree with most:

Most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies. It is for this reason, I believe, that the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov declared that there’s actually no such thing as reading — there’s only re-reading. (“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Nabokov wrote in his Lectures on Literature.)

The same holds for TV shows and movies: you see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing. You don’t truly see anything the first time you watch it. And, in my experience, this applies no less to music: hearing something for the first time is more akin to hearing it not at all than to truly hearing it. The work is too new, too unknown, to us; we can’t make heads or tails of it because we suffer from sensory overload. Quite simply, there’s too much going on for us to get anything but a glimpse of the work’s essence.

It’s only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings, then, that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We’re deaf and blind in our first encounters with things.

And this is why practice matters so much as well. It’s our chief hope for transcending mediocrity.

So I’m all for memorizing, whether in service of deep understanding or fun. (Want me to rattle off the seven capital sins and their contrary virtues, learned at six before my first communion?) But can’t people choose the things they want to memorize, as long as it’s something? Can’t we please honor the learning that engages us that way, by calling it “learning by heart”? And couldn’t we throw that regurgitative “rote” word out to rot, along with the tests that rely on it?

Please, wiser minds out there, educate me on this.

Resisting the tiger

Matt Davidson, of the Institute for Excellence and Ethics, today posted a thoughtful response to the current polarized discussion about childrearing that’s resulted from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With thanks to Matt, we excerpt below his five suggestions for a different vision of parenting, drawn from the Institute’s work on developing “intentional cultures” of excellence and ethics. Our own focus on deliberate practice draws us particularly to his remarks in #2, #3, and #4.

1. Love your children as an end, not a means. Don’t use them to achieve your hopes and dreams—past or future. Don’t play them as pawns in your game of social climbing and competition.  Love them—with their unique personalities and temperaments, with their unique talents and abilities, and with all their unique character strengths and weaknesses.

2. View life as resistance training.  Developing the mind, body, and soul of a child is fundamentally about developing muscles. Consider your job as teacher and coach one of structuring just the right amount of resistance to keep your child’s muscles in a healthy tension, so they grow, develop, and are prepared for greater challenges. Don’t hurt them by piling on too much; don’t hurt them by taking the weight off every time they sweat or complain or hurt. Is this teacher or coach or boss hurting my child? Or stretching their muscles?  If someone is hurting them intellectually, physically, or emotionally, by all means it is your duty to intervene. But if your child is simply unhappy, uncomfortable, or simply unfamiliar with the way their muscles are being challenged, support them, encourage them, stay close to them—but don’t rescue them. Viewed as resistance training, helicopter parenting and Tiger Parenting are equally detrimental to development. It’s not about being mean or tough, easy or loving; it’s about promoting development. Promoting development requires knowing when and how to change your style and approach given the particular child and situation.

3. Stop looking at the scoreboard at the game and start paying attention to practice field. Too many parents are looking at the outcomes and wishing and hoping and worrying. Forget about the grades, the test scores, the final score or final standing. It’s not that those outcomes don’t matter. They do. But what matters more are the habits for excellence that you are creating each day. The research on deliberate practice (and lots of other very solid research on talent development, motivation, and the cultivation of expertise) indicates that if we teach our children to practice with focus, intensity, and consistency, if we teach them to find the will to start and the grit to stick with it, if we help them seek capable coaching and constructive critique—then our children will (1) reach their potential for excellence, (2) do just fine as measured by the “scoreboards of life.” Replace “did you win?” “Did you beat?” and “How do you rank?” with “Did you do your best?” “Did you improve and grow?” “Did you push outside your comfort zone?” The rest will take care of itself.

4. Form in your children an ethical conscience and a conscience of craft. In writing on the formation of conscience, Thomas Greene introduced these distinctions; our children need both. Our current economic struggles are a perfect storm of poorly formed ethical conscience—greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, dishonesty—and poorly formed conscience of craft—shoddy craftsmanship, lack of work ethic, lack of thrift, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The “three A’s of performance and moral character” (originally in our Smart & Good report) provide a self-inventory to help ensure that we develop an ethical conscience (an internal sense of right and wrong) and a conscience of craft (an internal sense of what it means to do our work well).

5. Develop the whole person. It’s an over-used cliché—but it’s still true. So many years ago Aristotle argued that happiness was the goal of a life well lived. Regardless of the parent, I truly believe that happiness is what they desire for their children. However misguided their processes, this is their desired outcome. In order to help our children achieve happiness we must build in them a diversified portfolio of assets: they need to be able to develop positive and productive relationships; communicate and collaborate with efficiency and effectiveness; manage priorities and stress; commit to high standards and continuous improvement; demonstrate emotional intelligence, integrity and responsibility; exhibit creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving; lead and serve others; and live a balanced, purposeful, and fulfilling life.

“The single greatest thing we can do for the educational and economic prosperity of this country is to raise our children well,” Matt concludes. “All the talk of Tiger Parenting brought the discussion back to the forefront; I hope that it does not distract and polarize. We simply must recommit, beginning at home, to intentionally building the culture of excellence and ethics.”

That ‘tono’ voice

At five, my daughter sometimes used to ask me why I was using that “tono” voice. (You know the voice, don’t pretend you don’t.) It usually brought me up short, but it also reminded me how much what we parents say—and how we say it—matters.

Even now that she’s grown up, she and I sometimes find ourselves remarking when one of us comes out with a “tono” voice. It’s become a habit to work together on that—and maybe not such a bad one!

In my last post here, I identified seven “life skills” that the parents I’ve been working with really wanted to see their children develop, with practice:

• Communication
• Courtesy
• Taking other perspectives
• Self-control
• Organization
• Time management
• Self-care

In our conversations, these parents are unpacking those skills, one by one. They’re looking at just what coaching kids need when they’re developing these skills—not just at school, but at home, with us as their guides.

For example, what communicative habits do we really care about in our children—so much that we are willing to model them ourselves, to break them down for kids, to help them practice their component parts, to encourage their progress, and to celebrate their success?

Here are some answers that we came up with:

We want kids to speak clearly, so we (and others) can understand them. We care about what tone of voice they use. And we want their words they choose to suit the occasion.

We also hope their body language—their posture, eye contact, expressions—will come across as respectful and appropriate.

And finally, we want them to listen attentively when others are speaking to them.

One thing that became apparent to us is that those skills carry over to many other realms. Teachers are always working on the same things in the classroom, for example. And when our kids grow up, good communication habits will serve them well whatever field they work in.

But parents are children’s first teachers. By the time our kids arrive at school, they sound and act like us, more than we even know. When they get mad, our words will come out of their mouths. When they interrupt, it’s because in our house it’s everybody’s habit.

So maybe our first job as coach is to monitor our own communication habits. And why not make that transparent to the kids? After all, it puts communication out there as something we all have to practice, all the time.

Dominique, who has a five-year-old boy, realized that to her chagrin. “I just tell him ‘can you make your bed?’ she said. “Sometimes I say please, and sometimes I don’t.”

However frustrating it may be at the time, practicing good communication habits at home pays off when our kids go out to school or other social contexts.

“People will say, ‘He’s such a pleasure to have over, he’s so polite!’” said Susan, who has a boy of nine. “I’m really surprised and happy to hear it, and when I tell him that the parents have said something to me, it has made a big difference to him.”

What are your family’s ways of practicing better communication? Send in your dilemmas and your stories. The rest of us would love to hear from you!

That 'tono' voice

At five, my daughter sometimes used to ask me why I was using that “tono” voice. (You know the voice, don’t pretend you don’t.) It usually brought me up short, but it also reminded me how much what we parents say—and how we say it—matters.

Even now that she’s grown up, she and I sometimes find ourselves remarking when one of us comes out with a “tono” voice. It’s become a habit to work together on that—and maybe not such a bad one!

In my last post here, I identified seven “life skills” that the parents I’ve been working with really wanted to see their children develop, with practice:

• Communication
• Courtesy
• Taking other perspectives
• Self-control
• Organization
• Time management
• Self-care

In our conversations, these parents are unpacking those skills, one by one. They’re looking at just what coaching kids need when they’re developing these skills—not just at school, but at home, with us as their guides.

For example, what communicative habits do we really care about in our children—so much that we are willing to model them ourselves, to break them down for kids, to help them practice their component parts, to encourage their progress, and to celebrate their success?

Here are some answers that we came up with:

We want kids to speak clearly, so we (and others) can understand them. We care about what tone of voice they use. And we want their words they choose to suit the occasion.

We also hope their body language—their posture, eye contact, expressions—will come across as respectful and appropriate.

And finally, we want them to listen attentively when others are speaking to them.

One thing that became apparent to us is that those skills carry over to many other realms. Teachers are always working on the same things in the classroom, for example. And when our kids grow up, good communication habits will serve them well whatever field they work in.

But parents are children’s first teachers. By the time our kids arrive at school, they sound and act like us, more than we even know. When they get mad, our words will come out of their mouths. When they interrupt, it’s because in our house it’s everybody’s habit.

So maybe our first job as coach is to monitor our own communication habits. And why not make that transparent to the kids? After all, it puts communication out there as something we all have to practice, all the time.

Dominique, who has a five-year-old boy, realized that to her chagrin. “I just tell him ‘can you make your bed?’ she said. “Sometimes I say please, and sometimes I don’t.”

However frustrating it may be at the time, practicing good communication habits at home pays off when our kids go out to school or other social contexts.

“People will say, ‘He’s such a pleasure to have over, he’s so polite!’” said Susan, who has a boy of nine. “I’m really surprised and happy to hear it, and when I tell him that the parents have said something to me, it has made a big difference to him.”

What are your family’s ways of practicing better communication? Send in your dilemmas and your stories. The rest of us would love to hear from you!

“Say please!”

How do we help our own children get really good at things? I’ve been meeting for the past couple of weeks with a group of elementary school parents, to think through the family’s role in helping their children practice the things that matter to them.

“What do you want your child to get good at?” I asked them. “How do you support them in practicing it?”

Their children, these folks told me, were involved in plenty of activities for which they had to practice regularly. Some studied musical instruments; others played on athletic teams. They all had homework to do, which we counted as practice for their academic classes.

At the top of everybody’s list, however, was a different kind of accomplishment. These parents were regularly striving to coach their kids in the everyday skills of managing a productive life.

“At first, I thought I would say sports, reading, piano, those sorts of types of things,” said Nina, the mother of an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl. “But then when I made my list, I really started with the life skills—basic things like being polite, saying hello and goodbye, please and thank you. To me, that’s bigger, even though I do want those other areas too.”

And as we began to look closely at the skills Nina was hoping her children would practice, we realized that common courtesy was only one of them.

Parents wanted their children to develop strength in communication: speaking clearly, making eye contact, using positive body language and appropriate words and tones of voice, listening attentively.

They wanted their sons and daughters to learn to see other people’s perspectives, to stand in others’ shoes. That would involve practice in imagining possibilities, empathizing, negotiating, making compromises, even apologizing.

They hoped their kids would practice self-control—checking their impulsive behavior, managing their frustration and anger, sticking with a task even when they didn’t feel like it.

They wanted children to practice organization—from putting their toys away to knowing where they left those library books. Kids should learn to organize their own backpacks for school in the morning, they said wistfully. And they hoped they would learn to manage their time as well: prioritizing tasks and chores, allowing enough time to get ready for school, for bed, and for scheduled activities.

And self-care made their list of “life skills.” Everybody hoped their kids would get in the habit of good personal hygiene, healthy eating and sleeping, and regular exercise.

As Tom and Huck would say, we’re trying hard to “sivilize” our young. But here’s the funny thing: When we really do practice those skills, we see them showing up in other areas, too.

Piano practice, baseball practice, math homework . . . they all require the habits we listed here. (We’ll look into that more in future posts.) Even more interesting, we couldn’t name any adult activities, work-related or not, that didn’t depend on those “dispositions for success,” as the research community has started to call them.

From a recent Education Week article:

Across education and industry, research . . . shows the biggest predictor of success is a student’s conscientiousness, as measured by such traits as dependability, perseverance through tasks, and work ethic. Agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional stability were the next-best predictors of college achievement, followed by variations on extroversion and openness to new experiences.

Just how to get our kids to practice such things has been a parent’s challenge well before Tom and Huck came along. Checklists seem to help the modern family. (Look here for how one family gets its 8-year-old twins out the door in the morning on their own steam.) We’ll be generating ideas and posting your own thoughts here regularly, as we develop our upcoming “Family Guide to Practice.”

For now . . . “Say please!”

Pick up the baton!

Watch 3-year old Jonathan joyously wield his conductor’s baton to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and you just have to ask: What happened here?

How many times has he listened to this music, making its rhythms and phrasing part of his physical and emotional world? Whose encouragement led him with baton in hand to express his whole-hearted glee? How often did he observe other conductors on the stand, soaking in and imitating their movements? And how often did he repeat his own rendition, fine-tuning it consciously or unconsciously each time?

In the answers, we might learn something about what contributes to building other skills that we hope our children will develop. Wiping his runny nose as he bounds through Beethoven, Jonathan overflows with innocent joy in his exploration and expression of the conductor’s craft. And the video’s last seconds, as he collapses in helpless laughter on the rug, vividly show the glorious stretch we feel when going to the limit for the next great thing we can do.

Unless we don’t feel that—because frustration or humiliation bring us down. Someone helped Jonathan get there, freeing him to celebrate every step and take another. Just think what our kids could do if we figured out how to be that person for them!

Starting today, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on a parent’s role in practice–whether our kids are practicing music, or athletics, or schoolwork, or getting to bed on time. Calling on your contributions as well as the research about cognition and development, we’ll create “A Family Guide to Practice” with ideas for parents and close-in caregivers. Please write in your questions and experiences—and stay tuned!

Helping young teenagers to practice

This month’s guest post for parents comes from Zaretta Hammond, an education consultant who works with educators and parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Zaretta’s work focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of struggling learners, with particular attention to issues of equity in learning.

My 14-year-old daughter asked me to buy her a guitar this month because she wanted to learn to play like Taylor Swift. This request opened up an opportunity for us to talk about what it would take for her to get really good at playing the guitar. I could see her enthusiasm for taking on this new adventure as she talked about learning to play. I wasn’t concerned about her passion and excitement, but her willingness to commit to the “hard part” — the deliberate practice –to get good when the novelty will wore off.

Early adolescence is a tough time in the parent-child relationship to support a child in getting good at something. Despite having helped our children “get good” at tying their shoes, riding a bike, learning to read, and a host of other skills, at this stage we have less control over whether or not they will commit to deliberate practice.

What’s our role in supporting our children to get good at something new, especially when they hit the hard parts? Deliberate practice has some distinguishing characteristics that are important to understand as we think about how to support our children at different ages and stages in getting good at something.

• It’s about mastering a technique, not completing a task. This gives deliberate practice a special purpose. Teenagers are better than younger children in seeing how the small parts fit together to create a bigger picture and lead to mastery. Use this as leverage in helping the young person identify which parts of the process he’s already mastered and which parts still need work. From here, you can help him work on a single technique at a time.

• Deliberate practice requires undivided attention and focus. It takes mindfulness, which is often a challenge to kids who are used to multi-tasking all day. It also requires us to cultivate the ability to redirect our attention when the mind drifts. Teenagers often resist unplugging from multiple gadgets and simultaneous tasks, and they’ll experience a bit of a withdrawal period. We can help them create routines and rituals to make the transition from multi-tasking to doing one thing at a time. That can help them get used to the feeling of focusing on one thing for an extended period of time before going into a period of deliberate practice.

Over time, teenagers’ stamina for sustained focus and attention will increase. We can also help them recognize when their attention drifts. Most people can only concentrate intensely for 15 minutes before they need to shift their attention for a few minutes before coming back to the task at hand.

• Deliberate practice requires that we manage the frustration of making mistakes. We need to get okay with making mistakes, learning to use them as information that can help us correct our technique. We can help our children take an inquiry stance toward their mistakes. Teach them to ask themselves questions about how they got a particular outcome when practicing a technique or procedure a particular way. What might happen if they change it in a particular way?

With an inquiry mindset, young teenagers will be less frustrated at making mistakes. When frustration does come up, and it always does even for the most seasoned learners, we can help them center themselves with simple stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or body movement.

What are your own experiences of helping your children with issues like these? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll reply with your story in the Comment field below.

Get kids to chart their progress

“Interviewing is my challenge,” said the high school student you see in this video, as he began his journalistic internship at Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City. To chart his progress, his teacher gave him the camera and asked him to document how he developed the art of asking questions.

One of the finest examples of “rigor and relevance” in the world, EVC workshops not only provide students with academic credit and professional skills; they give them the chance to express themselves and be heard. Teachers learn, too, about how to use videography as a means to develop critical skills and content across the curriculum–and incidentally, as a way for kids to chart their own learning.

This student’s 2-minute piece, made as a “practice video,” is just the beginning of his journey. At EVC, even students who have never succeeded in school before often go on to win awards and scholarships and to work in the media industry. And they start with just such small steps as this: asking questions that matter (“What does it take to get good at interviewing?”) and documenting the answers, as new skills build on each other right before our eyes.

Why 'do it again' isn't enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,'” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.

Why ‘do it again’ isn’t enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,'” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.

Bomb scare

A pre-service teacher wrote us this week after her solo student-teaching day was interrupted by what turned out to be a bomb scare. After the kids had been standing around for about 20 minutes, she struck up a conversation about fire-drill protocols with a girl nearby, someone whom she had noticed wasn’t doing well in math class, and rarely spoke up. “She told me that fire drills only take five minutes,” wrote A.B. “I shrugged, and then I decided that this would be a good time to talk to her.”

Starting with how much she hated math, the girl gradually opened up to talk about her life–a couple of difficult years in middle school, a transfer, friendship issues. A.B. writes:

She had no plans to go to college but she really enjoyed cooking. Her specialty — all types of chicken. I told her that I really hate cooking. So, now, that is our thing. We talk about what she made and what she intends to cook. It’s amazing how that one conversation has made her open up to me more and ask me questions when previously she had not said a word to me.

Back in the classroom, A.B. began to make more time to talk with other students. One was a boy who often slept in class, never seemed to do his homework, but could rip through problems at top speed when he was awake.

I told him that I was very worried about him and his success. After some pushing, he told me that he was working 30 hours a week but not to say anything to anyone. One other teacher let him do his homework during classtime, and he was able to get an A. A local college agreed to admit him if he got a 2.5 this year, and he’s keeping a C average by turning in a few homeworks now. However, since that discussion, he has been much more willing to talk to me about how things are going with my class and other classes. He has started to participate more in class, but he is not turning in homework assignments.

“One of these students lacks the confidence and the other lacks the motivation,” A.B. wrote, wondering how to use the information that they gave her to get them to perform at a higher level. I am struck by two things about her situation:

One is how powerful it is for students when their teacher simply reaches out to find out what is going on with them. The second is how much skill it takes to adapt our teaching plans so that each student is taking the next steps that he or she really needs (as homework or as classwork).

The second can’t be done without the first. So, if it takes a bomb scare to get the conversation going, grab the chance! It could open up your best thinking and planning ever for “deliberate practice” that’s geared for the individual—and your students might just join that thinking with you.

We’re collecting great examples of how teachers do such planning, to use in professional development workshops and to post as resources on this blog. Please send us yours–we’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to you for sharing your best examples with us all!