9 Books and Two MOOC Recommendations

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A brief introduction:  As an answer to a question posed occasionally by parents and students who participate in GPA+ Academic Workshops I conduct in client schools, I am covering a few bases.  My hope and intent for GPA+ students are that they will recognize several workshop topics, note that leading authors and researchers are reinforcing similar strategies and evidence-based advice, and that they will get an enhanced appreciation for how all this applies to every person, regardless of age, profession, ability or performance levels. The idea of Getting Better at Getting Better is a life-skill and transfers easily from math class to the gym, to the playing field, to the stage, to one’s job, to considering how we conduct ourselves and interact with others.

Through the engagement of these students I hope their parents, a mentor, or teacher, might help them by facilitating the acquisition of any of these books or others on a previous blog list.  Ideally, parents and students together would take the Learning How to Learn Coursera MOOC, using A Mind for Numbers as the accompanying text. There are reasons why it has been the most popular free online course of all time.  It is fast-paced, focused, clearly presented, and will be helpful to any learner curious enough to at least give it thoughtful attention.  The interaction between parents and students will be powerful and allow them to better participate with thousands of people in the course discussion room.  It is not required and I did not spend much time there, but wanted to get a sense of how others were reacting in somewhat real time to various questions and topics.

As Oakley would say, Good luck learning how to learn!


A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra)

Barbara Oakley, PhD

This is the companion book to Coursera’s extremely popular MOOC (massive open online course) Learning How to Learn.  It was the most popular online course of 2016 and has had millions of participants, including me.  (“Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by University of California, San Diego on Coursera. Certificate earned on August 28, 2016”.)

Don’t let the title discourage you.  If you need to improve math or science grades, the book and the online course will be helpful.  But, just about anyone will get practical advice to improve the ways they think and act as well as specific strategies, personal examples and stories, and evidence-based research aimed at a general audience, especially high school and college students.

The test-taking chapter focuses on the importance of self-testing, or quizzing yourself, as perhaps the most effective study strategy for learners at all levels.

Students can find sensible advice in the last chapter, Unlock Your Potential, and from the two lists labeled: 10 Rules of Good Studying and 10 Rules of Bad Studying.

The author may have targeted high school and college students, but the book and MOOC connect with any interested learner.   Yes, the author flunked high school math and science courses; but, if you have a chance to read her books and take the two MOOCs, you will learn more about her as she shares her own life challenges and experiences from middle school years to wide popularity and well-earned success now.

(From some of the recommendations on the first page)

“I have seen far too many students opt out when they hit a rough patch.  But now that learners have a handy guide for ‘knowing better’, they will also be able to ‘do better’.”

“Giving students deep knowledge on how to learn will lead to higher retention and student success in every field. It is a gift that will last them a lifetime.”

“It’s easy to say ‘work smarter, not harder’, but Barbara Oakley actually shows you how to do just that.”

“This engaging book provides guidance in establishing study habits that take advantage of how the brain works.”

I recommend this book and the Learning How to Learn MOOC through Coursera.


Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential

Barbara Oakley, PhD

Based on my experience with the Learning How to Learn MOOC, I completed the certificate level of the Coursera  offering of Mindshift. (“Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by McMaster University on Coursera. Certificate earned on September 2, 2017”.)

(From the back cover)

“Dr. Oakley shepherds us past simplistic ideas of ‘aptitude’ and ‘ability’, which provide only a snapshot of who we are now – with little consideration about how we can change.”

“Even seemingly ‘bad’ traits, such as a poor memory, come with hidden advantages, like increased creativity…Dr. Oakley shows us how we can turn perceived weaknesses…into strengths.”

The author is an example of her definition: “A ‘mindshift’ is a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning. That’s what this book is about.”

She shares stories from visiting with people throughout the world who made drastic changes in career and life directions.  She notes Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck’s growth mindset positive anthem that many others also cite: if we think we can do something or change a habit, a positive attitude will help make it happen.

She profiles someone who trained to be an accomplished musician, avoiding anything to do with math and science. When he found his true passion required success in medical school, students will recognize two techniques which enabled him to get good grades in his previously weakest subjects.  The Pomodoro technique includes getting rid of potential distractions and setting a timer for twenty-five minutes of serious study before taking a few minutes to relax and even allowing yourself to be distracted.  The intense focus and relaxation components combine for a better learning experience.

The student in this story, who took the Learning How to Learn MOOC, explained: “Your course helped me realize that it is important to make studying an active process.  I would spend hours rereading slides, but half the time I would just space out and lose focus.  By using the Pomodoro technique and frequently testing myself, I am already seeing improvements.'”

A photo shows neural connections that were formed overnight from deeper study; i.e., deliberate practice and repetition create chunks of information.  This helps clarify how especially difficult homework assignments allow the connected chunks to form a solid base of knowledge or expertise.  It could be playing a musical instrument, getting better in a sport, or grasping the most important aspects of that challenging homework.  Unfortunately, our default approach is to spend more time merely going over the easy stuff. Think about this as you do that next assigned reading.

Another person made a career change and had to learn STEM based skills.  He was better able to navigate the transition after reading A Mind for Numbers and taking the Learning How to Learn MOOC.  For example: (1) he put a Pomodoro app on his phone, which helped him focus on process over results and reduced his tendency to procrastinate; (2) chunking and practicing key concepts by first previewing a lesson (pre-reading) and closing his eyes to recall what he learned eliminated any guesswork.  He either had a grasp of the material or not.; (3) thinking about what he learned just before going to sleep usually provided some creative moments the next morning based on the memory consolidation that occurs during sleep; and, (4) teaching himself out loud was excellent practice for assuring he could explain to himself what he learned.

As we ask in GPA+ classes: If I can’t do that, how will I be able to do it in class when asked a question or on a test?

As might be expected, there is a large section on MOOC learning and even preparing and presenting an online course.  The author explains how she produced and edited the videos for Learning How to Learn in her basement, getting the participation of over two million people throughout the world.  She provides stories of individuals who are super MOOCers and how you can take advantage of the resources that are available to you to learn more about most anything you want.

The references and notes at the back are thorough and could be helpful for further reading.

Oakley adds that one of the challenges “…with mindshift is that, early on, most of us aren’t taught how to learn.”  The problem we encounter as a result is making decisions about what we think we are good at or we might not be able to achieve because we were never good at math, or science, or music, or sports, or languages, or public speaking, or any number of things that signaled failure.

Mindshift will be worthwhile, as will enrolling in the MOOC.  Class Central recently published a list of the Top 50 MOOCs of all time based on thousands of reviews written by Class Central users – the best FREE courses.  There are over 8,000 MOOCs from around 750 universities worldwide.  They listed Mindshift as The sequel to the world’s most popular MOOC, Learning How to Learn.


How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Paul Tough

(From a blurb on the back cover}

“‘WHY DO SOME CHILDREN SUCCEED WHILE OTHERS FAIL?’ The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs.  But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control.”

Starting with the biological reasons for psychological problems, stress, poor decision making, tendencies to addictive behaviors, and the social and educational impact on young children and teenagers, Hough moves on to the importance of building character traits, and among the researchers noted is Angela Duckworth of Grit fame. (See her brief TED talk and longer presentations on YouTube, as well as her book of the same title.)

She became convinced that there were character traits that could be more influential to a student’s success than the normal contributions of IQ, family income, or ethnicity.  For her, Hough, and others looking at this topic students, or any of us, must have a positive growth mindset (Dweck), accompanied by motivation, consistency, a willingness to try something different, and enough curiosity and concern to perhaps engage in effortful learning.

In one study being a conscientious person was the ingredient that best predicted workplace success in major corporations.  Much of this chapter begins with and involves lessons learned from KIPP Academy in South Bronx and the campus of Riverdale, an elite private school in New York and how they were dealing with their program to define and develop character traits.

The How to Think chapter is about chess and the traits that made it possible for Intermediate School 138 in Brooklyn to win in Grades 6, 7, and 8 in scholastic tournaments throughout the country.  Interesting look at the coach, her students, and reminders of why chess is brought up in just about every book on improving learning and what it takes to perform at peak levels.

In the How to Succeed chapter we learn that the United States once had the highest graduation rate of any country but has dropped “…to twelfth in the percentage of its twenty-five- to thirty-five- year-olds who are graduates of four-year colleges.”  “…in college completion – the percentage of entering college freshmen who go on to graduate – the United States ranks second to last, ahead of only Italy.”

August 31, 2017, newspapers reported that according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau the number of Americans enrolled in colleges and universities has dropped every year since 2011, to a low of 19.1 million in 2015, or 1.2 million fewer students than were enrolled in 2011.

The following day news noted college loan debts are affecting not only recent graduates but their parents and even grandparents.  With average debt ranging from $18,000 to $30,000 among states, students and families, without knowing it, are engaging in some Mindshift type decision-making, balancing financial realities with life passions or perhaps uninformed career and educational path advice.

As part of the explanations offered for students who do enroll but are not graduating, Angela Duckworth and other researchers have noted that high school GPA was a better predictor of college success than SAT scores.  In other words, solid GPAs in middle and high school are more directly connected to the character traits of discipline, motivation, consistency, study habits, time and self-management.  They were gritty students.

Hough provides examples of programs developed to help underserved students succeed by getting into and overcoming the challenges of college work.  Programs that work combine the adoption of growth mindset and evidence of success that derives from applying strategies that will work if they become habits.  Interestingly, we learn that the author himself dropped out of college – twice.  His first time was as a freshman at Columbia University and then again at McGill University in his native Canada.

For GPA+ academic workshop students this book might be of interest as an overview of the difficulties facing students, including personal and social challenges, how they are being helped by a variety of people and organizations, and recent gains made possible by the research in education and psychology.  It is more reasonable to expect it will get the attention of parents, teachers, school leaders, and educational policy decision makers.

In summary, and again from a sales blurb on the back cover (which can be helpful as you pre-read a book before buying it or deciding if you want to read it): “Drop the flashcards – grit, character, and curiosity matter even more than cognitive skills.  A persuasive wake-up call.”


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business

Charles Duhigg

A top book of the year according to The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and big sales numbers through Amazon books.

(From the back cover)

“At its core, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.”

In the Prologue, we learn from a person’s story and brain scans that a “…set of neurological patterns – her old habit – had been overridden by new patterns.”  Advancements in brain imaging (e.g., fMRI) have allowed researchers to view such changes and verify where in the brain changed habits reside.

Duhigg carefully explains with different stories and marketing examples, including NFL Coach Tony Dungy changing the losing culture of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, by applying the “Golden Rule of Habit Change”.  If Cue – Routine – Reward is the equation for forming habits, and studies indicated that habits are rarely if ever truly eliminated, then he would change the team’s routine.  For Coach Dungy, it was a matter of changing just one of the components of the golden rule chain – the routine, or how players on the team practiced, not a complicated playbook with scores of plays and options to absorb, but a few which the team would practice so well they would become habitual.  Habits would become habits. In this case habits led to a Super Bowl.

Introduced early on is the story of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, which helps over 2 million people a year and perhaps over 10 million have changed their addictive habits because of their participation in meetings, a commitment to the twelve-step program, and a belief that some higher power has entered their lives.

A common takeaway from these selected readings appears in the studies of alcoholics who did well with replacing habits (the routine), until faced with stressful situations which caused them to relapse.  Researchers discovered that the difference between those who fought through challenging situations and those who were not able to maintain their new habit routines was a belief system.  They didn’t have to believe in God and belong to a specific religion, but they did have to believe that things would improve.  Basically, they had a growth mindset which allowed them some sense of hope and control.  Believing in something is a more encouraging approach than the outlook of people described as having a fixed mindset.  (See references to work of Carol Dweck.)

For students trying to adopt new study habits the experiments dealing with willpower can be encouraging.  “And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.”  Examples include an often-cited study in the 1960s, giving four-year-olds a choice of eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting a few minutes so they could have two.  About 30 percent had the willpower to wait and they were followed into high school, where they had better grades, higher SAT scores, were more socially adjusted, and popular.

Interestingly, one study involved willpower workouts at a gym, a four-month money management program, and “…an academic improvement program that focused on creating study habits.”  In each experiment, including the students, forming good habits spilled over into other areas of their lives, reinforcing the belief that you are changing your brain, how you think and behave.

The book details the history and changes in habits at Starbucks, Alcoa, the US Government, Rhode Island Hospital, Target, and even major societal movements as prompted by Rosa Parks in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  This was an example of a social habit that brought people and communities together for a common purpose.

The author shares the stories of people with destructive habits such as alcoholism, obesity, smoking and drugs, and gambling.  He acknowledges that there is no easy formula to effect positive change.  See the current September 2017 Explore: Your Health special edition of National Geographic, and the front cover and title “The Science of ADDICTION: How new discoveries about the brain can help us kick the habit.”

This book provides a look at how habits develop, how they evolve and affect the lives of individuals and organizations, and how a better understanding of how habits might be reformed.  He makes a convincing argument for commitment, a growth mindset, and demanding work as important components of his four-step framework.  He adds having a plan to the cue-routine-reward cycle.

Students may find this book interesting and helpful personally, and can add a few takeaways to their list of study strategies.  At the least, it will expand their BK/PK (background or prior knowledge).


 Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better

Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi

You have probably heard the expression “Practice Makes Perfect”.  Often, someone will suggest that the correct phrasing is “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”.

In the foreword, Dan Heath notes this book suggests that “practice makes permanent”.  He adds that there is a difference between repetition and real practice.

We can agree that every day we are practicing many things, from personal maintenance (brushing our teeth, shampooing, putting our clothes on for the day, our eating habits and preferences…); but, and here is the focus of the book – are we getting any better at any of the things we do every day as individuals, as students, athletes, musicians, workers, parents, friends?  The foreword ends with “Prepare to get better at getting better.”

Practice makes better, IF we feel we can do better and are willing to learn how to improve.

Self-testing by asking questions and reciting the answers (daily practice) enables us to think more clearly and creatively because the basic content has become routine and we have expanded our knowledge base, or background knowledge/prior knowledge.

Practice does not mean we concentrate only on areas of weakness.  There are advantages for individuals and teams to work on areas of strength with a goal of going from good to better to great.

Catch the discussion about the difference between a drill and a scrimmage and the example of legendary basketball coach John Wooden and a principal getting ready for a staff meeting.  The drill is used for getting better at a skill; e.g., the ability to answer a question about a homework assignment.  A student would be drilling by practicing the recite step after reading a section or page.  GPA+ students know they would read first, cover what they “read”, and out loud, using their name, recite the answer to the question, “(NAME) what is important about this section or page?”  This assures that the student has read the information to understand it and is able to recite or self-test before having to do so in class on an exam.

In the above examples, the scrimmage would be the review step for students.  After the recite step for each of the pages of the homework assignment, the student takes a quick look at each page to self-test, or review, the material to assure that the information is still understood and can be explained aloud.  This is the student’s version of a scrimmage after individual or team drills in a sport.

The principal has drilled by going over the major topics to be covered in the staff meeting and even what questions or objections might be anticipated.  Now the scrimmage might be a practice session with an observer for feedback.  The same format would be true in many other scenarios involving getting ready for class, a test of some sort, a meeting, a presentation, a performance, a debate.

An emphasis of the book is developing better classroom/teaching techniques, using examples from sports, medicine, and military special forces to move from better to great.  As several sources have pointed out, it can’t be assumed that a person who has been a teacher, a surgeon, a firefighter, or a politician is any better from merely being on the job for 5, 10, or 20 years.  In fact, studies have shown that skills can plateau or even regress without deliberate practice, feedback from informed coaching, and challenging additional career education and training.

As with all the titles selected for this post, I can recommend this book to anyone.

As general advice to students looking through this blog post, do not overlook passages or sections of an online course that you feel is directed at someone much older or too quickly assume the advice is not relevant.  Take the growth mindset attitude that you will find something that you can use in your situation.  It might require you to translate the information so it fits your personal life or your goals as a learner.  Those are the times when the advice to take notes during a MOOC, for example, will make practical sense and you can later rephrase the notes so they are more meaningful to you.


Make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

(From inside cover)

“Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive.  Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly.  More complex and durable learning comes from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.”

The authors intended the book to be helpful to all readers who want or need to become higher level learners – in the classroom, in the workplace, as trainers or coaches, throughout the military and various professions, at any age.  The only requirement is a willingness to examine what the recent research is saying about the most effective strategies for managing and even mastering what might appear to be difficult knowledge work and skills.

At the start, they make claims which they then defend with a good deal of research and interesting examples and stories.  Among the specific claims:

“Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”

“We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not.”

Rereading text and massed practice (cramming) of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive.”

Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.”

“When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.”

“The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in a form consistent with your preferred learning style, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is not supported by the empirical research.”  “…and you learn better when you ‘go wide”, drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness…”

“All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.”

“…if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.  The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”

“…every time you learn something new, you change the brain – the residue of your experiences is stored.”

Personal examples to illustrate the importance of being able to retrieve essential information from burned-in memory because of the kinds of practice and self-testing noted in the above statements include a pilot who lost oil pressure and called upon his training, his prior knowledge, and ability to retrieve the list of things he needed to do, the maneuvers he had to make, for a safe landing.

Another example is a young Marine First Lieutenant who can calmly handle her third parachute jump which began when she landed on another jumper’s open parachute.  The jump school training she received instilled the principles of strong or deep learning covered in this book.  Football coaching, police training, and situations faced by airline pilots and surgeons are also cited to illustrate the importance of self-testing and “effortful” deliberate practice.

One important strategy or personal approach highlighted relates to the research of Carol S. Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). Basically, the studies show that if someone has a growth mindset, meaning we control our ability to learn and succeed, that person is more likely to work harder and consider different approaches to achieve goals.  Another person might have a fixed mindset, and tend to fault their inabilities (e.g., I’m just not good at math, or (fill in the blank).  It is the difference between paying more attention to performance goals than to learning goals.

The authors also cite How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, for echoing Dweck’s mindset research and highlighting the importance of the characteristics of grit, curiosity, and persistence over IQ.

The major point for students is success is available to those who have a more positive mindset and are willing to be a bit gritty or effortful.

The example of a medical student who pulled low grades to grades placing him with top performers will be appreciated by GPA+ students who now have a method for reading their homework assignments.  When he studied,  “‘I would stop, Okay, what did I just read? What is this about? I’d have to think about it. Well, I believe it happens this way: The enzyme does this, and then it does that.  I’d have to go back and check if I was way off base or on the right track.'”

He knew his habit of spending many hours rereading was obviously not working for him based on his grades, so he made a commitment to stick to his new habit of retrieval practice, or self-testing, at least to see if it would work for him.  So, rereading was replaced with proving to himself that he could recall the information from memory.  Only when he couldn’t answer a question would he then take another look at the information.

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where students have very limited time, cadets must focus on main points; i.e., what is essential.  As one psychology professor is quoted: ” ‘If you’ve read every word of this chapter, you’re not being very efficient.'”  GPA+ workshop participants will remember the advice to not get bogged down reading words and print, but reading to find answers to questions.

NB:  Initially it was not my intent to provide as much detailed information about and from this book.  But, GPA+ students will find the above references from the book complement the workshop presentation, their folder of handouts, and our discussion.  It is a title I can strongly recommend.


Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

While two authors are listed, they note that they chose to write the book from Ericsson’s point of view, which recognizes the decades he spent studying and writing about outstanding performers and the “deliberate practice” that distinguished their training from those who were merely good.

(From the inside cover)

“Anders Ericsson has made a career studying chess champions, violin virtuosos, star athletes, and memory mavens. Peak distills three decades of myth-shattering research into a powerful learning strategy that is fundamentally different from the way people traditionally think about acquiring new abilities.”

Ericsson’s work has been cited in many popular books, such as Moonwalking with Einstein, Outliers, and How Children Succeed.  He has published about the “science of expertise” and he and others in this new field have studied why some people are able to become exceptional through the way they practice.  As he states it: “…I came to realize that no matter what the field, the most effective approaches to improving performance all follow a single set of general principles.  We named this universal approach deliberate practice’.  Today deliberate practice remains the gold standard for anyone in any field who wishes to take advantage of the gift of adaptability in order to build new skills and abilities, and it is the main concern of this book.”

He is confident enough to end the introduction to the book with “Because deliberate practice was developed specifically to help people become among the best in the world at what they do and not merely to become ‘good enough,’ it is the most powerful approach to learning that has yet been discovered.”  Wow.  That is being confident I would agree.  I think you will also agree if you take the time to read this book.  (Remember to pre-read.)

Purposeful and deliberate practice have well-defined, specific goals and are focused.  If you are studying, what are you trying to accomplish or understand and how will you know you have reached your goal?  “You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.”  Maybe you could try the Pomodoro technique to avoid procrastination and stay alert for twenty-five minutes before taking a few minutes to relax.

A key component of deliberate practice is getting feedback and “getting out of one’s comfort zone.  If a student is doing homework, the feedback might be in the form of talking out loud and answering questions like “Do I understand what I just read or what this section is about?”  The feedback will be positive if you can answer that question out loud, making it more likely you will be able to retrieve the information you need from memory.

As most students are reluctant to push themselves beyond getting the homework assignment completed (a goal), they routinely neglect the process and will overestimate how much they have practiced.  Many call it working to a feeling of fluency, or being comfortable with the material.  That is not the same as being able to comprehend to a level that allows you to explain or teach it to yourself first, and then to others in class or on an exam.  While it may feel uncomfortable at first, if you are faced with a challenging assignment and your normal approach is not getting results, as Ericsson suggests: “Generally the solution is not ‘try harder’ but rather ‘try differently.'”  Others have called it not try harder, but try smarter.  Remember, Practice Makes Better, if the practice is purposeful and not just mindless repetition.

The steps to deliberate practice as outlined by Ericsson are more specific and describe what is needed for performers in a field that has measurable standards (music, swimming, diving, chess, ballet, memory, languages, gymnastics, figure skating, etc.).  One ingredient is an informed teacher at a skill level who can monitor progress and at least initially provide suggestions and feedback designed to improve practice and performance.  The list of criteria push deliberate practice beyond purposeful practice and places demands that are at max effort levels.  It is certainly challenging and calls for dedication.

However, the takeaway for students is not discouraging.  It is possible to take the deliberate practice approach to get the most that you can achieve while studying, while practicing anything that has performance goals you would like to achieve and perhaps surpass.

If you are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he publicized the ten-thousand-hour rule, giving several examples and stating that masters in any field all had that amount of practice in common.  Ericsson points out Gladwell loosely took the rule from the results of a study of Berlin violin students in 1993 Ericsson and his co-authors published.  A problem with popularizing the ten-thousand-hour rule was the mistaken notion that if someone devoted that amount of time they could achieve excellence in any field.  What is correct, according to Ericsson, is the fact that anyone who is competing with others who have spent five-thousand or ten-thousand hours must spend that amount of time and beyond.  “There is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement.”

 Highly recommend:  Ericsson worked for many years before his research became widely acknowledged and now popularized.  He has earned his reputation as an “Expert on Experts”.


 The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

Gary Keller with Jay Papasan

This book has often been cited and included on must-read lists.  The authors explain at the outset: “If you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same.  Go small.

‘Going small’ is ignoring all the things you could do and doing what you should do.  It’s recognizing that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most.  It’s a tighter way to connect what you do with what you want.  It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”

And, “Sometimes it’s the first thing you do.  Sometimes it’s the only thing you do.  Regardless, doing the most important thing is always the most important thing.”

 Students should note the explanation for why “multitasking is a lie” and the list of six specific reasons. It is very unlikely you can focus on two things at the same time.  Your laptop can’t and neither can your brain.  Both are switching gears, going from one to the other.  It may be quickly done, but they are separate functions.  We are constantly open to distractions and, in fact, “With an average of 4,000 thoughts a day flying in and out of our heads, it’s easy to see why we try to multitask…While doing one thing we’re only seconds away from thinking of something else we could do.”

The authors note focus occurs in the prefrontal cortex of our brain.  When you read: “When you focus, it’s like shining a spotlight on what matters.”, and if you have taken the Mindshift, MOOC, you will remember the images of the flashlight beam on the front of the brain and a larger light for the “diffused” part of the brain used for creative thinking and larger chunks of retained information.  Multitasking cuts up our focused attention and weakens any outcomes we are trying to attain.

Once again Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s research on how we view ourselves and our abilities can determine how we behave and the life decisions we make – mindset.  Specifically, “Growth mindset students, as she calls them, employ better learning strategies, experience less helplessness, exhibit more positive effort, and achieve more in the classroom than their fixed-minded peers.  They are less likely to place limits on their lives and more likely to reach for their potential”.”

In preparing to present THE question, the authors note the importance of asking the right questions to get the right answers.  Since Socrates 2,000 years ago, and from Harvard Law School to elementary schools, from sports teams to corporate boardrooms, the Socratic Method of teaching uses the practice of asking the best questions to elicit the best responses.  “Research shows that asking questions improves learning and performance by as much as 150 percent…’Sometimes questions are more important than answers.'”

For the authors, this focusing question is the book’s thesis: What’s the ONE THING I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” They divide the question into big picture (overall what is my ONE thing?) and the more focused question (at this moment, what is my ONE thing?).

Read this paragraph aloud a couple of times and especially the book’s focusing question.

They provide focusing questions related to finances, spiritual life, physical health, personal life, job, business, key relationships; e.g., “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at _________?”  A student could ask What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my academic performance?  And the student would add a specific time frame, so the question becomes:  What’s the ONE thing I can do to improve my academic performance (this day, this week, this semester) such that by doing it everything else will be easier or even unnecessary?

 The authors note that research has shown that it takes about 66 days for a habit to be formed.  Recently others have written 23 days or that the amount of time varies considerably.  But, invariably, “Actions build on action. Habits build on habitSuccess builds on success.”

There is accountability involved, and YOU must make this happen, but you probably knew that.  Think about your day, or the past few days, or the days and weeks ahead.  If you have a to-do list, reading The ONE Thing will lead you to admit that on your list a few things are more important than others, and from those few things remaining, you will realize that ONE of them is really the most important thing.

If it might be of interest, the authors refer you to their website, The1Thing.com.  You will find free resources to download, access to podcasts, and the consulting services and presentations the authors provide.


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Angela Duckworth

(From the front and back cover)

“I’m convinced there are no more important qualities in striving for excellence than those that create true grit…I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.“ – Brad Stevens, head coach of the Boston Celtics

“I kept wanting to read this book aloud – to my child, my husband, to everyone I care about.  There are no shortcuts to greatness, it’s true.  But there is a road map, and you are holding it.“- Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the Worlds: And How They Got That Way

Grit is a persuasive and fascinating response to the cult of IQ fundamentalism.  Duckworth reminds us that it is character and perseverance that set the successful apart.“ Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers

In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, students, educators, athletes, and businesspeople – both seasoned and new – that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls ‘grit’.”

I have written about and recommended this book in a previous blog, but include it here to reinforce the connections that recent authors and the research are making about what works for improving academic and personal success and the attempts to describe the best skill sets for success.  The authors presented in this post, as well as the two highly recommended MOOCs and many of the books noted in an earlier post agree about certain traits that align with successful changes, with accomplishments, with reaching goals.  If Grit is not mentioned specifically, notice persistence, flexibility, growth mindset, and other terms you will translate easily to Grit.

Her TED talk on Grit is perhaps the briefest video presentation easily available, yet remains an excellent introduction of her interest and entry into the field of psychology and the study of determiners to success – at West Point, the National Spelling Bee, or the Seattle Seahawks football team.  YouTube has several of her longer presentations available.

Her Recommended Reading List includes titles you will recognize:  Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning; The Power of Habit; Mindset: The New Psychology of Success; Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise; and, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

I recommend this book to students and parents.