The Learner’s Dictionary

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CB029654It’s a beautiful moment we’ve all experienced: a teacher or coach says something and all of a sudden – like sunbeams cutting through a cloud – we get it. We understand deeply.

The question is, how do we make these moments happen more often?

I think one of the best ways is by using more precise language.  Too often, teachers and learners alike settle for vague instructions, like “do it like this,” or “try it again.”  These are well intended, perhaps, but in essence they are squishy, meaningless words that create squishy, meaningless actions.  What learners need isn’t cheerleading – it’s information on what sensations they should feel, what techniques they should use, what goals they should aim for on the practice field or the classroom.

With that in mind, here’s a semi-serious list cobbled together from various talent hotbeds, and stolen from business, sports, art, music, and academics.  Some are undoubtedly more useful than others, but all reflect a simple idea: to reflect the sensations and goals of the way the brain really learns.

  • Brick (v): The simple beginner’s errors that feel clumsy and stupid, but in fact form the crucial building blocks of future progress. Usage: “During the initial round of presidential-primary debates, Obama spent most of his time bricking.”
  • Lego (v): To break a desired task into its most basic component parts; akin to chunking. Usage: “Little Wolfgang struggled with the chord changes until his father helped him lego it out.”
  • Hack (v): To analyze the components of ideal performance with the goal of replicating it. Frequently assisted by the use of YouTube.
  • Hi-Def (v): To deeply and completely memorize the image of an ideal performance. Often used while hacking. Usage: “Kobe spent hundreds of youthful evenings staring at the posters on his bedroom wall, high-deffing Michael Jordan’s jumpshot.”
  • Ping (v): To send a short, concise instruction; typically from a teacher to a student. Usage: “Coach Wooden stalked the sidelines during practice, relentlessly pinging the team as it ran through its fast break.”
  • Rainman (v): To productively obsess on a tiny, crucial detail until it is dialed in with 100 percent accuracy. Usage: “The calculus test was Friday, so Albert started rainmanning his derivatives on Wednesday night.”
  • Sandwich (n): A three-part demonstration where a teacher vividly shows the right way to do something, then the wrong way to do it, then repeats the right way to do it. Usage: “In the movie ‘Stand and Deliver,’ Jaime Escalante teaches algebra by sandwiching.”
  • Suck-cess (n): A surprising favorable outcome; typically occurs following the combination of bricks, hacking, and pinging.
  • Vex Education (n): The process by which people grow familiar with the central paradox of learning: that being willing to be bad makes you good.

(What other words should we add?)


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10 Responses to “The Learner’s Dictionary”

  1. Dale Kirby says:

    I like what one of your commenters said about “Practice Practising”

    I might suggest “Counting with Data”. To really embed something in my brain I break it down so I can count my physical exercise movements with the data I want to remember. For instance, I count my stomach crunches with the first 1000 digits of Pi or words of the Tao te Ching.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Pi and stomach crunches X 1,000 — wow. I think you’ve invented a new kind of biathlon.

    Great suggestion — it’s a simple way to double-dip your practicing. Plus you get a third benefit: the act of counting provides you a welcome distraction from the pain of the crunches.

  3. Dale Kirby says:

    You’re right. The exercise is less painful and more interesting that way. Especially if you use the Journey Method for the initial memorization. You go on a little “walk” in your imagination as you work out. You can also post a numbered list of the things you’re learning to read off as counting.

    Memory champions are a set of “athletes” that use all the principles of deliberate practice for their skill development.

  4. Nice article Dan, I love using the term “Default Setting” to describe a client that switches off from all swing thoughts to see what appears under pressure. I see my longterm role to help them alter that default setting through deep practice.

  5. djcoyle says:

    I like that. We all have our default settings — not just in golf, either.

    And like any default, it’s hard-wired. How long does it typically take to develop a new default setting in one of your students?

  6. Steveastlegolf says:

    Certainly the earlier off the shelf they are the easier the task and therefore the setting can be changed in several weeks to a couple of months. The older the student and dependant on previous exposure to the skill, the settings can take years to become default. I find the toughest part then becomes commitment to the process of rewiring versus the results. When students aren’t fully immersed in the process and the long term rewiring then the default button is often pressed under times of pressure or desperation for short term success.

  7. Dale Kirby says:

    This essay speaks to this default idea in another context.

    The Top Idea in Your Mind
    http://www.paulgraham.com/top.html

  8. Dale Kirby says:

    Inchworming. When it’s hard to get a entry point into some new skill or body of info, I allow myself to just inch into it, to be as stupid and obvious as I need to be. To restate the obvious when necessary. Take something that seems simple and look at it from every aspect. I guess it’s similar to Legoing.

  9. djcoyle says:

    I like that a lot, Dale — good one! Captures the feel and the speed — not to mention the way it creates a soil for good things to grow.

  10. eric says:

    I as a coach feel like I am “massaging” the message. Getting feedback from my players about how they are feeling the ball (tennis) and massaging that into something they can call on to repeat.

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