Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.

I read an AWESOME new book over the holidays called The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/055380684X/tilsoncapitalpar).  Here's a summary:


Journalist Coyle travels the world to discover the truth about talent in this fascinating account that studies how individuals can unlock their full potential and bring their talents to light. The discoveries put forth by Coyle come down to three main elements: coaching, motivation and practice. While these hardly seem like breakthroughs, Coyle's discovery process proves fascinating. Providing detailed examples from a variety of different sources, Coyle's work becomes as motivational as the stories he presents.


Basically, Coyle picks up where Malcolm Gladwell ends in Outliers with the concept of 10,000 hours required to become world class at anything.  Coyle shows that lots of practice is indeed necessary to build skills and learning, but that's not enough: there also needs to be ignition/motivation and good coaching/teaching.


As I read the book, I was thinking to myself, "This is exactly what KIPP and other high-performing schools do."  And much to my delight, Chapter 7 (attached) is "How to Ignite a Hotbed" with the subtitle "Dave and Mike's Ridiculous Idea".  It's an overview of the founding of KIPP and a very detailed profile of what one KIPP school, KIPP Heartwood in San Jose, does.  Coyle writes:


When they get to KIPP, their lives are like a single dot on a map.  You can't do anything with a dot," Feinberg said.  "But when they connect that dot to another dot, to a college somewhere, then you get a connection.  When they get back from those trips, they carry themselves differently."


This simply, powerful idea is made real in Lolita Jackson's math class.  Jackson, who's in her late fifties, is a small woman who wears gigantic earrings and radiates galvanic discipline and enthusiasm.  She spent the first twenty years of her career working in the local public school system, increasingly frustrated by its limitations. [Whitney's memo to KIPP: our talent pipeline needs to have more people with her background.]  When KIPP Heartwood came along, however, she joined up and quickly became one of its most effective teachers as well as its assistant principal.  Ali regards Jackson's skills as near-magical.  ("Ms. Jackson does things that nobody else can do," Ali says simply.)  For instance, each year after orientation week is finished, Jackson begins her first math class by clicking off the lights and asking students to close their eyes.  She slips a Star Wars soundtrack into the CD player and turns it up.  As the triumphal music surges, Jackson strides into the room as if she were the captain of a rocket ship on countdown.


"You buckled up, KIPPsters?" she asks.  "You ready?  You strapped in good and tight?  Because this is going to be a bumpy ride.  It's going to be tough, and it's going to be hard, but it's also going to be great because we're going to work and learn some math, and we are going to college!"


The kids sit quietly, the music resounding in their heads.


"College," Jackson repeats, tasting the word.  "Do you want to know the difference between a good life and a hard life?  You want to know the difference between having the knowledge and the power to get the things you want and now having that knowledge?  Fasten your seat belts, because that's where you are going, starting right now."


Like Spatak, Meadowmount, and the other talent hotbeds, KIPP Heartwood is a bastion of deep practice.  Jackson and her colleagues constantly remind KIPP students that their brains are muscles: the more they work them, the smarter they will get – and there's plenty of work to do.  Two hours of homework a night is standard; worksheets number in the hundreds; the day is filled with stretches of intense, silent work.  As Feinberg said, "Softer methods might work in other schools, but we literally don't have any hours to waste, much less days or weeks.  Our kids arrive way behind; we need to get them up to speed and ahead.  It's like the fourth quarter of a football game, we're down by a touchdown, and we've got to get downfield and score, now."  The touchdowns are happening: in 2007, KIPP Heartwood students ranked in the top 3 percent of California public schools, according to the state's Standardized Testing and Reporting program.


What's striking in the end, however, is not how hard KIPP students work, but rather how swiftly and completely they take on the KIPP identity that provides the fuel for that hard work.  On both of my visits I was approached by students who wanted to know how I was doing, if there was anything they might do for me, and of course where I went to college.  Some of these exchanges felt a bit scripted (the overly firm handshakes, the fervently agreeable nodding, the geisha-level politeness), but beneath the artifice vibrated the sincere effort of someone stretching toward a new persona.


I visited KIPP Heartwood last October, met Ms. Jackson and Sehba Ali (see photos posted at: http://picasaweb.google.com/WTilson/KIPPHeartwood), and saw exactly what Coyle did.

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