I love the clean, organized, hopeful look of them. I love the sense of steady progress and accomplishment that they radiate.
I love calendars even though I know they’re lying.
Because despite what calendars imply, progress is never steady or predictable. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s uneven. You go from struggling with a particular thing and then, bang, you find yourself standing on a new threshold of ability. It’s not a staircase so much as jagged and unpredictable climb.
I find myself increasingly fascinated by those unpredictable leaps in ability. What are they made of? And, how do you make them happen more often?
We get an answer, I think, from the two videos below. They capture practice sessions from vastly different domains. But they’re really about something far more important and powerful: smart practice design. Which means being willing to be stupid.
Case Study #1: Timeflies Tuesday’s Lottery-Style Freestyle
Freestyling requires you to do write poetry on the fly, to the beat of a song. The keystone skills are to 1) generate phrases and 2) link them up into something bigger. The goal is nimbleless of mind, the ability to weave a series of ideas into a series of phrase-stories and make them rhyme in real time. This is not easy.
Rob Resnick and Cal Shapiro, a.k.a. Timeflies Tuesday, have come up with an ingenious design that is centered on slips of paper and a hat.
- Step 1: Write down random topics on slips of paper (Kardashians, Anthony Weiner, Red Sox).
- Step 2: Place slips of paper in a Celtics baseball cap
- Step 3: Have Cal pick the topics one by one and try to work them into a freestyle.
Here’s what it looks like (Tip: fast-forward to 1:15 — and if you are offended by explicit language, you probably don’t want to click):
Case Study #2: Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech
Cech is one of the planet’s best goalkeepers, in part because he’s trained himself to detect and deflect the ball from every conceivable velocity and angle. His keystone skill is reading and reaction — which is what this practice is designed to build.
It’s completely fantastic: different-size balls, shots from three different angles and velocities, from feet and tennis racquets, layered with unique twists (I especially like how he has to throw one ball straight up in the air, catch a second ball and dispose of it, and then catch the original ball before it hits the ground).
Here’s the point: beneath the surface, both Timeflies and Cech are engaging in exactly same form of compressive practice, which has three elements:
- 1) Isolate the key skill: You put one central skill under the magnifying glass. You aren’t working on the entire set of moves, but just the most important parts — which usually have to do with pattern recognition and reaction.
- 2) Pressurize: Make it harder than normal. In games, Cech will never have to deflect three balls. Cal will never have to react to random lyric ideas from slips of paper. But practicing in this way — forcing nimbleness — will make performance under normal conditions far easier.
- 3) Make it Fun and a Little Stupid: These are not “serious-minded drills” — they’re the opposite. They’re funny little games, loaded with emotion, engagement and the opportunity to fail productively. You feel goofy doing them — and that’s the point. This willingness to feel stupid is not a downside: it’s a design feature.
It’s no accident that Timeflies performs their sessions in front of friends and posts them on YouTube — it adds to the sense of fun, connection, and risk. Same with the people on Giveit100.com, who post their practice sessions as they improve over the span of 100 days. I think this is a worthwhile trend. The more we get to glimpse the nitty-gritty preparation beneath performance, the more we can steal and learn from them.
Speaking of which, what’s your favorite practice design, technique, or method? Are there any useful ones that might be worth sharing and/or stealing?
Can you watch people perform, talk to them, and then choose the person who’s destined to succeed in the long run?
Most of us instinctively answer “yes,” because it feels like we do.
In fact, science shows us that we’re mostly flattering ourselves. Because the truth is, long-term success is extraordinarily difficult to predict. Interviews are notoriously unreliable. Sports drafts, in particular, are expensive casinos.
The problem is that a person’s progress ultimately depends on factors that are extraordinarily difficult to measure — stuff like character, emotions, discipline, motivation. How do they respond to failure? What’s their vision for themselves? Can they persevere in the toughest situations?
We call this “the soft stuff” but in fact it’s not soft at all — it’s the hardest, most vital stuff there is.
The real question is, how do you measure it?
I came across a great answer developed by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback before becoming a successful coach, has developed a simple way to measure the soft stuff of his quarterback and receiver prospects.
He plays catch with them.
That’s right — he plays catch, throwing a football back and forth. He does this at pro days, when prospective draftees try out for an audience of coaches and scouts. Every other NFL coach treats the event as a spectator sport, standing on the sidelines with clipboards and video cameras. Harbaugh, on the other hand, uses it as an opportunity to engage.
Here’s the trick: with Harbaugh, it’s not an ordinary game of catch. Because after a few warmups, Harbaugh starts throwing harder, with more and more intensity. He makes the player run out for passes, making tough throws. He challenges the player, sees if they instinctively rise to the occasion. Some players back down, get uncomfortable. Others embrace it. From the Wall Street Journal:
Harbaugh first took a liking to [Colin] Kaepernick, who played in college at Nevada, when they played a supercharged game of catch at his pro day in Reno. Harbaugh threw hard; Kaepernick threw harder. Kaepernick, Harbaugh came to understand, had the drive he was looking for. Although he wasn’t considered a top prospect—San Francisco took him in the second round in 2011—Kaepernick has started in two straight NFC Championship games and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.
I love Harbaugh’s litmus test because it measures two things at once: interpersonal chemistry and competitiveness. It operates at the gut level, where the most important factors reside.
In short, this is not talent ID — it’s temperament ID.
It reminds me of a master teacher I researched at the Bolshoi Ballet, who tested new students by teaching them a difficult and strange new move that none of them had ever done before. The teacher wasn’t interested in how well they performed so much as whether they embraced the process. Did they rise to the challenge? Did they struggle well? Like Harbaugh’s test, it was a gut-level litmus test of temperament and character.
The next question: are there ways to apply this idea to other disciplines? What’s the business version of Harbaugh method? What’s the music version?
Do you know of any similar temperament-ID tests that might be worth sharing?
Perhaps it’s a coach, maybe a high-school teacher, maybe a relative — it doesn’t matter.
Now picture their face.
When you think about that person, which of the following comes to mind:
- A) A life lesson that person taught you
- B) A goal that that person helped you achieve
- C) The way that person made you feel
If you’re like most people, it’s no contest.
The answer is (C).
The lesson of this little exercise is simple: the greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information. They’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say; they’re about the way they make you feel.
I’m not talking about mere social skills. I’m talking about the ability David Foster Wallace was talking about when he wrote this:
A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority…. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.
Which leads us to a question: how do we find teachers like this, both for ourselves and our kids? How do we develop this quality in ourselves?
I thought it might be good to start a conversation by identifying a pattern I’ve seen in my research and the related science: three simple things that master teachers tend to do.
1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.
Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.
A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.
This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.
2) They ask LOTS of questions.
We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.
Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward the answers.
Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:
Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.
If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”
“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”
3) They have a good sense of humor.
Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.
Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.
I love the Singular Genius model of creativity. You know, the worldview that believes creativity comes from one-in-a-million individuals like Beethoven, Faulkner, Edison, and Steve Jobs, who remake the world because they think different.
I love the Singular Genius model because it’s fantastically compelling and dramatic.
But the singular-genius model has a problem. Two problems, actually.
Problem #1: it’s inaccurate. None of the singular geniuses truly operated on their own. Beethoven had Haydn and Mozart, Steve Jobs had Wozniak and Gates; Faulkner had Conrad and Hemingway, Edison had Tesla, and so on. Singular geniuses stand tall because they stand on the shoulders of others (who stand on the shoulders of others, and so on).
Problem #2: it’s crippling. Under this model, you are either born a creative genius, or you’re not. Which makes for an entertaining story, but doesn’t do much for the rest of us who are seeking to be more creative in our lives.
Fortunately, there’s a better model, which might be called the Team model of creative genius. In this view, creativity does not reside within singular people, but rather within the social ecosystems that create and refine ideas.
The big insight is this: every creative breakthrough is built of ideas — thousands of ideas, working together in the same way that cells build a organism. Creativity, then, is not about finding one brilliant individual, but rather about creating effective patterns of interaction between a bunch of smart individuals. About arranging the right people in the right way, and letting them get to work with as few barriers and as much focus as possible.
Nobody on the planet does this better than Pixar. The studio reinvented the movie business by switching from the singular genius model to the Team model, in which movies are made by tightly knit groups. As anyone who has seen Pixar movies can attest, it works. It’s not guesswork or good luck; it’s a system.
The good news: Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has written a wonderful new book called Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Unlike most books written by founders, this isn’t some myth-heavy legacy project — it’s far closer to a blueprint. Catmull takes us inside the Pixar ecosystem and shows how they build and refine excellence, in revelatory detail.
Among the takeaways:
- 1) Embrace the suck stage. All the best creative ideas are ungainly at the start. As Catmull says, every Pixar film, early in its development, has sucked. “That’s a blunt assessment, I know,” he writes, “but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” Embracing suckiness as part of the process — and not judging outcomes too early — is essential.
- 2) Be quick to fix. Creative people need help, because they inevitably become lost in the process. They fuse emotionally with the project, and that fusion, while necessary, leads to confusion. The cure? Equip them with a braintrust: a cohesive group of colleagues who can identify problems with candor and trust.
- 3) Be crazily persistent. Failure isn’t just an option: it’s the most effective pathway forward. To use those failures well, you have to be more than just mildly persistent. You get a good sense of this from an open letter written by Pixar animator Austin Madison.
“I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first is white-hot, “in the zone” seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice. This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair…. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision….”
You get the idea. This book is chock-full of advice like that. If you do creative work, you should read it, now. (For a taste, here’s an excerpt.)
(Look for new post in the next week or so.)
1) I’m working on a new book about successful group culture. I’m focused on underdog organizations (sports teams, businesses, schools) that succeed despite the odds; groups that are far more than the sum of their parts — in short, groups where two plus two equals 10. I’m focused on the invisible, intangible stuff: culture, cohesion, chemistry, trust, purpose, and seeing how those work. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I hope to stop reporting and start writing soon. One slight problem: the reporting is kind of addictive.
2) I’m also spending time working with my adopted-hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, focusing on talent-development innovation. It’s been a blast, and the organization is nothing short of terrific. We spent two weeks of spring training in Arizona, and while I can’t reveal too many details, I can confirm that Nick Swisher’s bro hugs are exactly as powerful as you’d imagine them to be. Tonight is opening night for the Indians — so Go Tribe!
If you have any thoughts about either of these projects, I’d love to hear them.
My friend Jeff is a trauma surgeon, and he’s pretty good at his job. You can tell because a few years ago, President Obama was visiting town, and Secret Service agents stopped by to inspect Jeff’s operating room — you know, just in case Jeff was needed.
The other day I asked Jeff a simple question: what was the single best, most effective training session he’d ever witnessed?
Here’s his answer:
We were teaching medical students a class in emergency medicine, and instead of lecturing we did something different: we staged an accident.
Class began as normal, then we had somebody barge through the door and yell that there had been a car accident outside — they needed help, now! The students ran out — they could probably tell it was staged, but it was pretty convincing — fake blood, injured “victims” scattered on the ground, piles of debris everywhere. They had to read and react to what they saw — to do triage, to figure out who needed what, under live conditions. We even hid one “injured” person under a pile of debris, to test if they would pay attention enough to find him.
The students went to work treating the injured for about 15 minutes, and we videoed the whole thing from a few angles. Then we all walked back in the classroom, and watched the video, analyzing exactly what they did right and what they did wrong. And then — and this was the powerful thing — we did the whole thing all over again. We re-staged the accident from the start and had the students go out again, to correct their errors and get it right. The whole exercise took two hours, and it was a huge learning experience for everybody.
Isn’t that great? Not just because it’s creative, but also because it vividly shows the gap between conventional learning (a.k.a. passively listening to someone lecture) and actual skill development (doing real things, paying keen attention to your mistakes, then doing those things over again.)
Jeff’s story reminded of my own best training experiences. I was just out of college, and wanted to be a better writer. I invented this method where I would attend baseball games and pretend that I was the sportswriter on deadline. I would watch the game, take notes, and then race back home to write my story by my make-believe deadline. The next day, I would compare my story to the story written by the actual writer, and see where I’d gone wrong, and where I’d gone right. It provided, like Jeff’s make-believe accident, some of the most vivid and powerful training I ever had.
This kind of learning falls under the general heading of LARP — live action role play – and it has a few key features:
- 1) You’re pretending to be someone you’re not (yet, anyway)
- 2) You perform in “live” conditions, with real emotional pressure
- 3) You get vivid, speedy feedback
- 4) You repeat it over and over
Effective LARP requires something else: a certain immunity to embarrassment. It feels more than a little goofy pretending to be a sportswriter, or pretending to take care of fake victims. I think that’s one reason why LARP tends to be vastly under-used — which, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity.
With that in mind, I’m curious if anyone would like to share their own stories of their best training session ever. It could be LARP, or it could be something else that happened through invention or accident. Please give us a quick description of your session below, and why you think it was effective, and we’ll see what patterns emerge. Thanks!
Of all the master coaches I know, John Kessel might be the best. Not because of his brilliant coaching of his sport (which happens to be volleyball), but more because of the way he thinks. John is enthusiastically obsessed with the Big Questions: What’s the best environment for learning? How can you ignite motivation in young people? What is great teaching made of?
Earlier this week, John happened to see a presentation contrasting the habits of good classrooms and bad classrooms. After brainstorming with colleagues Leslee Harms and Cassie Weaver, he came up with the following poster, which highlights the key elements of a high-quality sports program.
I think it’s absolutely spot-on — and what’s more, applies to a lot more than just sports. In fact, if there’s a clearer road map to creating an effective learning environment, I haven’t seen it.
But of course, that’s just the start.
For the next project, John would like to come up with a similar road map for the single group of people who need it most: parents. His idea is to have the readers of this blog (and others) compile a similar list for parents: Call it: “A Tale of Two Parenting Styles.”
And that’s where you come in.
Would you be interested in offering John your ideas and suggestions on what makes an effective sports parent, and what doesn’t? Feel free to add however many you like; the only request is that you follow the above format. I’ll get it started:
- Parent A: Focuses on wins and losses as the measure of success
- Parent B: Focuses on long-term learning.
- Parent A: Spends the car-ride home asking detailed questions about the game, the kid’s performance, and the coach
- Parent B: Spends the car-ride home being supportive, listening to music, talking about life outside sports
What do you think? Can you help John get this done?
PPS - For inspiration, check out this hilarious animated video that John made with his son Cody, depicting a a coach’s conversation with a Parent from Hell.
In the actual world, this does not happen. In fact, we occasionally show up fantastically unprepared. In fact, just this morning, my 15-year-old daughter had such a moment: a math test this afternoon, and she’d barely studied.
Fortunately, modern science is here to rescue us. Specifically, science that reveals the surprising power of small environmental cues to activate unconscious triggers in our brains.
There are entire books written about this subject (my favorite is Adam Alter’s wonderful Drunk Tank Pink) and I recommend checking them out. But in the meantime here are a few quick performance-enhancing tricks that you can use in a pinch. Keep in mind that the science is in its infancy, and that many of these studies have tiny sample sizes.
But that’s okay. After all, you’re desperate.
- 1) Think about your ancestors. This experiment in Germany showed that students who spent a few minutes thinking about their forebearers (either great grandparents or more distant) improved performance on a memory test by 30 percent over students who thought about friends or shopping. The reason? We’re social animals. Your ancestors are the reason you exist. Thinking about them seems to activate our senses of belonging, confidence, and control.
- 2) Wear red, especially in sports. This is a weird one, but apparently true: a 2004 study of 457 Olympic wrestling matches showed that when competitors were seeded identically, the ones wearing red won 62 percent of the matches. A similar finding was done with a half-century-long study of English soccer teams (though the fact that powers Manchester United and Liverpool both wear red might have something to do with that). Scientists theorize it has to do with the fact that red holds an evolutionary link to dominance and aggression, and thus triggers unconscious feelings of dominance that improve performance.
- 3) Spend a few minutes staring at a photo of trees, or (better) take a quick walk in the woods, which has been shown to improve performance on a memory and attention test by 20 percent.
- 4) Listen to relaxing music, which improves the body’s ability to handle stress, lowering cortisol levels and buffering against negative emotions.
- 5) If you’re a woman speaking to a group, look at a picture of Hillary Clinton: this experiment showed that exposure to Hillary’s face (as opposed to her husband’s face or a landscape) substantially improved the public-speaking abilities of women. (Sorry, guys — no similar effect found for men.)
- 6) Chew gum, which improves blood flow to the brain and improved recall by 20 percent on a short test.
- 7) Exercise, which has a similar blood-flow effect, and, in the long run, helps build a better brain.
- 8) Take a quick nap, which has all kinds of cognitive benefits (especially if you follow the official rules of high-performance napping).
As we drove to school today, I told my daughter some of these tricks. At this exact moment she’s chewing gum, thinking about ancestors, and staring at trees (as luck would have it, she was already wearing red). I’ll let you know how it turns out.
In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome
(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)
Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.
Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.
Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.
By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.
Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.
It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:
- 1) early specialization increases the chance of injuries.
- 2) early specialization creates worse overall athletes (more evidence here).
- 3) early specialization makes kids less likely to participate in sports as adults.
- 4) early specialization creates a falsely high barrier to participation, eliminating kids who might otherwise succeed in a more open system.
I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.
Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.
It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.
Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.
I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.
So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.
- Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years. (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)
- Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.
- Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.
I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives.
As in, really skeptical.
While fantastically entertaining and beautifully designed, most of these apps fail what I’d call the Reality Test: they are inferior to learning the old-fashioned way, with your brain, body and the good old physical world. (Besides, as South Park wisely pointed out, there’s a slight but crucial difference between being skilled at Guitar Hero and being skilled at guitar.)
Then came last night.
Let me set the scene for you: it’s 10 p.m. and the temperature here in northeastern Ohio is approximately minus-478 degrees. School for tomorrow has been officially canceled. Jen and I are hanging out downstairs; the three girls are upstairs in full snow-day celebration mode, reveling in the unexpected late bedtime, the joy of no classes, pure freedom.
But something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. Then I hear a faint trumpet call, followed by yells of delight.
“What’s going on up there?” I ask. That’s when Jen tells me.
“They’re learning Spanish,” she says. “On an app.”
The truth tumbles out: the app (which is free) is called DuoLingo, and Jen has been secretly addicted for a few days, playing every spare moment. She’s already past 400 points, she tells me, and she can’t wait to get back to it, having just selected INSANE as her new daily level of practice time. And now it seems her new obsession has traveled, like a rogue virus, to the kids.
At first glance, DuoLingo doesn’t seem like much. You pick a level, and the a friendly voice poses a series of translation puzzles. Sometimes you are asked to speak a sentence. Sometimes you type what you hear, or pick the right translation from a series of options.
The secret to its appeal is the way it combines this sense of fun with smart individualized coaching. It nudges you to the edges of your ability and keeps you there, looping over material in various ways until you have it dialed in. Instead of tediously memorizing lists of words, you spend time solving tiny, engaging puzzles. Add in the razzle dazzle of medals, points, social competition and happy trumpets, and you’ve basically got a nutritional version of Candy Crush.
The other secret has less to do with the app and more to do with the nature of the skill itself. Language, unlike many other skills, is basically a massive interconnected ocean of information. DuoLingo works because it gives us space to splash around in that ocean, see what works, and repeat. It does exactly what a skilled coach does: creates a gamelike environment that keeps us reaching, over and over again, toward mastery. (Or, if you’re Jen, reaching for a reason to propose a family vacation to Spain.)
So does it work? Users (like this Slate writer) seem fairly ecstatic. I found this study (financed by DuoLingo’s parent company but conducted independently) showing that DuoLingo users learned the equivalent of a college semester in 34 hours. Around our house, the trash-talking has already started: Katie has promised to defeat her mother in the levels race.
So here’s the next question: What else am I missing? What other learning apps are useful? (Has anybody tried Coach’s Eye, for instance?) I’d love to start building a list of learning apps that actually work. Please feel free to add any of your recommendations in the comments section below.