Lots and lots of people watched a YouTube video yesterday of a young child’s trip down a tricky mountain bike trail.  The camera is attached to the rider’s helmet, so the viewer gets to experience the ride with him.

The whole thing made me a bit uneasy at first, mostly because I’m not much of a risk-taker and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride a bike down that trail myself.  It didn’t seem safe and I was concerned.  I got over that after a few seconds when I realized that the rider is very skilled and probably wasn’t in much more danger than I am when I ride around on streets with zero grade.  (Actually he’s probably safer, given the absence of cars and drivers.)

Once I got over that I could enjoy his enjoyment of the ride.  I think much of the appeal of the footage lies in the tone and articulation of his commentary; he’s still getting some of his consonant articulations worked out, so his expressions of the large emotions he has over the course of the ride are especially endearing.

But for me the most striking thing about the soundtrack is the quality of attention in his voice and his breath.  Behind the young exclamations it’s possible to hear the thrum of vitality, as he calls on everything he’s learned about moving his weight in concert with his bike, regulating velocity, negotiating turns and terrain.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a treacherous trip down a mountain to call forth that kind of aliveness.  It’s not the ride itself that inspired the quality of this child’s commentary.  It’s his relationship with the riding. He’s been practicing, studying the skill and performance of his dad and others, in order to be able to do a thing that delights him. Everyone has a thing they can be like this about.  At least one.

Thanks for the reminder, Malcolm.

16,380 hours

Yesterday as I was trying to imagine (because I don’t remember) what it’s like to be five years old and going to school for the first time, I got to some calculating.  Six or seven hours a day (here it’s seven, beginning in kindergarten) for 180 days a year for 13 years.  If I’ve got the math right, that’s 16,380 hours. That is a lot of hours.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours-to-mastery guideline.  (The piece that didn’t make it to popularization was that it isn’t just 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 hours of this thing called deliberate practice.  I think it’s important to mention this with any mention of the 10,000 hours. It matters how you do the thing and, one can gather from fact of the how, also why you’re doing it.)

So if most kids spend in the vicinity of 16,380 hours at school, and it takes 10,000 to master a thing, that means that the chunk of time set aside from a young person’s life for compulsory schooling is the equivalent of more than one and half potential masteries.  It seems to me as though anyone who’s required to set that chunk of hours aside for learning should have some reasonable degree of assurance that he or she will emerge with at least one mastery, perhaps close to two, or something that’s in some way comparable to that.

I don’t know very many people who would say they got anything like that, but that’s not my point.  I just think it’d be a good idea to be honest with ourselves about numbers like these, because it’s so, so many hours, and they’re precious hours, committed during the part of life in which a person’s brain is most available for learning. Are we sure enough that what kids are getting is worth what they’re giving up?

Table, brother, geography

I’ve been doing some grappling lately with the notion of genius, and in the course of it came across Matthew Syed’s Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.  I’m only several pages in, and I’m not sure yet how or if the book is substantially different from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, but Syed’s account of and commentary on his success as a table tennis player does what none of Gladwell’s examples do, because he tells the story in the first person.  (Now that I think of it, it’s been long enough since I read Outliers that I’m not sure Gladwell doesn’t tell his own story; either way it’s not one of the prominent lengthy examples in the book the way Syed’s is.)

More soon on genius, potential, etc., but in the meantime, I recommend having a look at the table tennis story from Syed if you’re interested.  (You can start with the free sample at amazon; it’s a good lengthy one that includes the whole section I’m talking about here.)

Because of when you were born.

Several months ago I mentioned Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0.  In his chapter on the emergence of adolescence as a concept, Epstein also walks the reader through the history of compulsory education.  He mentions that when Massachusetts established the first public school system in 1827, which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least three months of the year, that if students were able to demonstrate mastery of the material to be taught during those three months, they weren’t required to go.

Epstein makes chapters and chapters worth of interesting points in this book, but this is the paragraph that I cannot forget.  Over time and for various rather complicated reasons, we moved from this kind of competency requirement to a system in which a young person is required to be in school whether or not he or she needs instruction in the areas of instruction offered.  If you’re of school age, you have to go just because you have to go.  Because of when you were born.

This is an extremely weird thing to do, and I’d venture to say it’s part of the reason we get so much resistance from so many kids when we tell them education is important so they better do their homework.  Even the ones who struggle chronically in school have noticed within the first few years of school that once they’ve learned something, they’ll have to get taught it again just because that’s what’s happening that day.  School has a little bit to do with learning, but mostly, it’s somewhere kids have to go.  (Often we dismiss the repeated instruction in the name of practice, but children know the difference between things they need to practice and things they’re being taught more than once for no apparent reason.)

When families opt out of traditional schooling, the machinery of published curriculum often mimics the situation at home.  If a math curriculum teaches and reteaches a concept, then it has to be done and redone.  Again, it’s justified as required practice, but we don’t always remember to check.  How much practice does it take, really?  Does everyone need the same amount of practice?

For now, education-wise, this is what we’ve got.  But there’s a lot we can do in conversation with kids to reduce some of the ill effects.  For a child who’s not in school, we can use whatever materials we choose to offer academic instruction that we deem useful, but we don’t have to insist that every page get done.  Or even every lesson, every chapter, every book.  Once we know a child can write the paragraph the way we want her to be able to do it, we can let her move on.  As it happens, it tends to be lots easier to get a child on board with mastering a clear set of competencies than to get her to comply with a requirement of open-ended unlimited instruction and academic work.  If we say “here are the things we want you to know how to do and once you can do them we won’t belabor them,” she knows exactly where she stands and what there is to do.

For a child who’s attending school, it’s tremendously empowering (and has a similar though not as profound effect as saying “here are the things…”) to distinguish between the things he’s being told to do that are new and instructional and those that are not.  We tend to avoid admitting such things to kids because we worry that it will undermine a teacher’s or school’s credibility or authority.

It’s worth considering whether or not this protection is worth the cost to a child’s morale.  Kids can understand a lot more subtlety than we tend to give them credit for.   You don’t have to say “You shouldn’t have to do that because you already know how; I don’t know what your teacher is thinking.”  You can say something more like “I see why you’re frustrated about doing more addition and subtraction practice.  This is one of the things that’s not working very well about schools.  We want all kids to be able to do the things they need to do, but you’ve probably noticed that different kids learn different things quickly.  You remember how it was really easy for you to learn to swim, and it took your brother a long time, but then it was harder for you to get your balance on your bike?  It’s like that with a lot of things and we haven’t worked out yet how to manage it.”

It’s a long way from where we are to where the education we offer might make sense and work for everyone, or even most everyone.  In the meantime, while we’re working that out, we’ll be wise to venture into these tricky conversations with kids about why things are the way they are, to acknowledge the things that aren’t working so kids don’t have to wonder why their experience feels so removed from what we’re insisting upon.

Beyond suffering

A few weeks ago I wrote about how kids are oriented toward fun, and how adults tend to be wary of this orientation.  It’s one thing to enjoy one’s self, we think, but too much attention on fun seems like it might suggest that a child isn’t motivated to do the hard stuff in life that prepares a person for adulthood.  It seems like a commitment to fun might eventually lead to, say, a 29 year-old child living in the guest room.

It helps to trade out the word fun for a word that’s a little less culturally charged.  Fun seems too much like the antithesis of work and productivity.  And we’re clear that the American Dream, whether we think of it as yachts and country club memberships, home ownership and health insurance, or a diet of organic food and a solar-powered car, is accessible via hard work.  Suffering, actually.  Kids can recite some variation of this ethic in their sleep: “You have to learn that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.”  This is what we say when we’re worried that they’re getting too focused on fun – when they’d rather be running around outside with their friends than bent over a math book, when they’d rather build and rebuild a pirate ship out of Legos than read, when they decide to study art instead of economics. Fun freaks us out.

So instead of fun, let’s call it vitality.  Let’s imagine that when they make or attempt to make these choices (outside, Legos, art), they’re actually demonstrating a commitment to vitality.  They’ve noticed that when they’re doing these things, they feel alive.  They have energy, they feel light, they’re participating.  If you look at a child, or any person for that matter, and you see them going after something that brings them to life this way, it’s hard not to imagine that they’re on the right track.  And the really good news is that it doesn’t mean that they won’t ever choose to do something they don’t necessarily “want” to do.  If kids know and are allowed to pursue the experience of feeling alive and being committed to keeping that experience at the forefront of their lives, they’ll have reason – motivation – to endure what they have to do in service of that experience.  Even if it’s not always fun.  If you’re studying art, for example, because you find it invigorating in some way, you’re more likely to be patient with the parts of your studies that may in their own right be less than invigorating – practicing a particular technique over and over and over, or reading up on the financial ins and outs of selling your work, or even working extra hours at your day job because it means you can keep up your studies in the evening.  If someone tried to get you to do any one of those things and it wasn’t connected to something that gave you an experience of vitality, they’d just feel like Things You Have To Do.  If you feel alive and energized by building things out of Legos and you need a new $60 bulk set in order to build what you’ve got in your imagination, the extra chores you have to do for your neighbors in order to earn the money aren’t necessarily things you Want to Do, but you’ll do them without having to be told that it’s important to do things you don’t want to do.

We can teach kids to search for the realms in which they can experience profound commitment, or we can try, in a vacuum, to get them to do stuff we think they should do.  When they’re actually committed, they’ll still be able to use our guidance, but we won’t have to force them to do things just to teach them the lesson of doing things you don’t want to do.  In fact, the whole notion of Don’t Want to Do tends to fade and even disappear in the face of actual self-driven commitment.  Don’t Want To is a relic of a worldview we could let go of if we weren’t such creatures of habit.  We say we want kids to have better lives than we had, but we cling to our beliefs about how hard life has to be.  Every day kids are trying to show us how to be committed to vitality, to be guided and informed by it, and every day, we try to steer them toward suffering.

By hand

One of the casualties of the standardization of education and learning is the personal connection to learning and work.  I spoke recently with two families whose children struggle with writing by hand. One sits every day and makes his way through the practice, with an occasional eruption of dismay, but the result is considerably less than what he’s capable of.  And when he makes a mistake, he is more interested in what the paper does under the eraser (he doesn’t hold the paper still while he writes or erases, so the process tends to generate a dark gray smear if not a tear in the page).  The other refuses to hold her pencil the way she was taught, which not only irritates her parents but also makes the work take much longer.  It’s all lose-lose.

If only we could just get them to realize that they’re making it worse, right? It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, that they practice, and we know they can do it if they just keep at it. But we often lose that battle. What if instead we decided that they’re trying to tell us that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, and could we please help them come up with another way to achieve whatever it is we’re after? Continue reading


Kids and adults often get stuck in a dynamic of enforcer and enforcee.  I spoke with a mom yesterday who is exhausted and discouraged that so many of her afternoons and evenings are spent just getting her son through his homework.  She’ll keep doing it if she has to, but it’s hurting their relationship.

Parents end up in these exhausting power struggles out of a well-intentioned interest in getting kids through.  They feel like they have to choose – put your foot down, or just give up. This dynamic of power struggle leaves kids to choose only between compliance and resistance. Continue reading

Reference can help the brain do its best work

The other day I was sitting with an 8 year-old as she wrote out the date.  At one point she turned to look behind her at the analog clock on the wall.  “I always look at the clock to make sure my 9 is going the right way,” she told me.

Kids who know they’re prone to reversing letters often do a similar thing with the giant alphabets that hang in most elementary classrooms.  Here are a few other examples of reference options that can be helpful.

* a copy of the lower case letters, written out on wide-ruled paper with the dotted midline, for a child making the transition from all upper case

* a summary of the symbols used in a college math text

* the spellings of frequently used words

* the multiplication table

* the layout of the QWERTY keyboard

But aren’t these the things the students in question are supposed to be learning?  Won’t they not learn them if they’re just looking things up all the time?  Isn’t that cheating? Continue reading

Gandhi and the piano

Be the change you wish to see in the world, said Gandhi.  I assume he meant that it works better to start with yourself and let that be an example, an inspiration, an opportunity for others to try it for themselves.  It doesn’t work as well to start by trying to get other people to take on the change you want.

I heard a parent say recently “I make my kids play the piano because I wish I had started playing music early so I could enjoy playing now.  I make them do it because I love music so much and regret that I didn’t use all those years of brain power to learn an instrument.”

It’s true you can’t go back and get the young elasticity of the brain that makes kids such fast learners.  But it’s also true that forcing someone to do something against their will doesn’t always (often doesn’t, I’ll venture to say) mean that they’ll grow up to treasure and use the skill they acquired under that early duress, no matter how well-intentionedly it was enforced.   Continue reading


I’ve been hearing many folks mention the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell noted are required for mastery.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I’m hearing it used more or less as a weapon, at least when it comes to passing the notion on to kids.  “You know, it takes 10,000 hours to master something so no, you can’t skip practicing today!”  or “Get going – you’ve got a lot more hours to go!”

But it’s not the sheer quantity of hours spent that leads to mastery.  You have to not only spend the hours, you have to spend them a particular way.  David Shenk, in The Genius in All of Us, describes the research of expertise expert (!) Anders Ericsson: “…it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.'” Deliberate practice, Shenk goes on to explain, is “the type of practice where the individual [italics mine] keeps raising the bar of what he or she considers success.” Continue reading