How the Best Teachers Begin Their Lessons


Quick question for coaches and teachers: What’s the single most important moment of a lesson? Is it:

  • (A) the initial explanation of the skill being taught?
  • (B) the first couple tries?
  • (C) the moment things click, when the learner “gets it”?

I think the answer is (D) — None of the Above.

There’s a strong case to be made that the single most important moment of learning happens before the lesson actually begins.

We know that master coaches are extremely skilled at quickly making a strong emotional connection with a learner, to create the bond of trust that’s the foundation of all learning.

But mere emotional connection isn’t enough. The world is filled with extremely charismatic, fantastically entertaining teachers who are wonderful at creating connection but not so great at actually improving skill.

Because it’s not enough just to capture the learner’s attention — you have to create intention: an urgent desire to work hard toward a concrete goal, toward some vision of their future self.

Science is giving us a peek inside that process. A group of researchers at Case Western were able to look at the brains of learners in two conditions. In the first, the coach was judgmental, and focused on negatives and the past. In the second, the coach was empathetic, and focused on the future.

With the judgmental coach, the visual cortex showed limited activity. With the positive, future-oriented coach, however, it lit up like a Christmas tree. The researchers concluded that this correlated with someone imagining their future.

The takeaway: when it comes to learning, brains work exactly like flashlights. It’s not enough just to turn them on; they have to be pointed toward a target.

A few simple ways to do this:

  • Encourage expression about future goals. Where do they want to be a month from now? A year? Five years?
  • Ruthlessly eliminate negative statements — especially judgements — that cause brains to shut down.
  • Count down until some Big Future Event. How many practices do we have left until the tournament? How many more lessons until the recital?  A calendar with Xs is a powerful tool.
How else? What other tips do you have for clicking on those flashlights?

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9 Responses to “How the Best Teachers Begin Their Lessons”

  1. Sean D'Souza says:

    I agree. Right now we have several courses in progress: cartooning, headline writing, uniqueness etc. All of them have a build up. All of them are about what we specialise in, which is ‘tiny increments’. And there’s always a countdown. The course never begins when it begins. There are innumerable exciting moments and things to do, before the course begins.

    It’s like Christmas day for a child. You have the countdown, the whole excitement factor. And yes, what they want for Christmas. If there’s no build up, it’s all there in one second and gone like a ship in the night.

  2. Sean D'Souza says:

    We also create barriers. I’m reasonably confident you’d have read up on the ‘Suzuki Method’. And in that, he keeps the three-year olds away from learning the violin. So the parent has to master “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” for a month. All the while the child wants to play, but is not allowed to.

    Then the child goes to the class. All the children who’ve been through this process are playing. But the child is not allowed to. By this point the pent up energy is almost exploding. The child’s only focus is to play, play, play.

    We do that as well, but with adults. There are innumerable barriers they have to cross before they get to the playing. And it makes them even more determined.

  3. Sean D'Souza says:

    By the way, ‘The Talent Code’ is required reading on all our courses. So we’re not selling a ton of your books, but I think we’d probably get you about 300-400 sales a year.

  4. Hi Dan,

    I’m still preaching the Talent Code ‘gospel’ all over the UK. I feel like one of those TV evangelists! All I need to have one of those transformation moments when I take away somebodies skill blockage with my hands and I would have a major hit on my hands!

    Anyway back to reality…

    I did some work on the goal setting aspect of this in terms of motivation. Often when a goal is pretty long term such as winning the league by X points or whatever the athlete or team can lose sight of the prize so I ‘sell the why’. This involves me referring them back to the big goal and then giving them the options… ‘We can do this hard thing which will be tough and will challenge us or we can do the easier thing that we will all enjoy but might not help us to achieve the goal’.

    When we set about the challenge they set the success parameters (number of shots on target, goals scored, completed passes, etc) and there are always consequences for failure and for success. If they succeed we then reset the target upwards, if they fail we never go down, in most cases we go up a little bit. It is amazing how often they they will over reach the second target after an initial failure (followed by consequence). Basically they need the 1st followed by consequence followed by a raising of the bar to give them a reality check of what they are capable of given the appropriate level of focus and effort.

    Once we get to that point (I refer to it as their ’10/10′ level. Then we have a reference point which we can always reach for.

  5. djcoyle says:

    That is tremendous, Stuart — I really like your method — probably too many good things to count in it. But what I really like is how it keeps everybody reaching, and avoids momentum-killing verdicts of failure — in fact, your players are being set up to constantly surprise themselves.
    Maybe we should switch roles, and I’ll preach your gospel!

  6. sharon says:

    I agree – there’s more and more data in early childhood education that a positive approach to learning is more effective. One exercise I tried when frustrated by my composition students’ focus on the grades they want to get (while doing as little work as possible) is to have them write about “What is an educated person? Is it desirable to be an educated person?” or something similar. There’s not always a specific goal in liberal arts education, but this was one way to get them thinking about why the actual learning is important, not just the grades or degree.

  7. Cody Groves says:

    I have been applying the knowledge from this blog entry over the last few days. I don’t have a “life coach” so I thought I would use the information to sort of be my own. Here’s the drill.

    In a journal I write out

    1. thanks/appreciation (for starting the drill)
    2. Compassion Towards Self
    3. Positive Future – possibilites, oportuniteis to learn and grow
    (Steps 2 and 3 Go back and fourth for a few minutes and the whole time I try not to judge myself or think about the past to much)
    4. Thank myself for my responses

    Here is my latest journal entry: thanks for doing this – compassion – a little tired and sad, but started out with confidence, perhaps in this process, hope and smiling at God, joy, peace, love, hope, humility – positive future – being good at guitar, finishing flashcards and pharmacy tech, being able to relax when i need to, learning to love more and following Gods calling, memorizing more Christian songs, warm weather, love from god and others, talking to Jake maybe, christian music, exercise, being strong and confident, life, getting better work, joy, strength, fan blowing on me, fascination with life, interest in life, plenty of water, making my dad proud perhaps, feeling good physically – compassion – sleepy but confident and strong, relaxed, comfortable, looking up, boredom, a little fear that this might stop working, smile, but sadness maybe for my mom, peace forgiveness love, tons of hope / victory? belief in Jesus – positive future – music, singing, joy peace, looking at green out the window, life, comfortable bed to sleep in, cooler temperatures to sleep in, hydration, finishing flashcards – compassion – happy, hopeful, compassionate, joyous, victory from God, gratefulness, powerful, peace, humility love. Thanks for doing this and your responses: END JOURNAL (you get the idea :P)

    Further Explanation:
    I guess I just tried to take what I learned from the article and apply it to myself using a journal. I go back and fourth, first paying attention to what I feel at the moment making sure not to judge or beat myself up about how I feel. Then I switch to thinking about a positive future and writing it down to keep me focused. In my first entry my emotions were pretty low, a lot of sadness and worry, but by the end of the entry I was feeling pretty good about my situation and future, now when I do the journal, more often than not, I start out with positive feelings. Anyway I just wanted to say thanks. This is really helping me at the moment and thought I would share in case anyone wants a drill they can do to get some positive emotions going. I guess its really just an exercise in hope and understanding, and hope can be contagious. Maybe a win win for everyone.

    God bless,

  8. Robert Lunte says:

    This is great, I totally agree. This is what we do at my vocal studio, teaching people how to sing.

  9. xman343 says:

    hey daniel: when i think of a coach who has been villified, i think of no one but coach bob knight.

    how can we explain bob knight’s performance?

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