Gregg Goodhart has a passion for teaching others how to learn so they can surpass their perceived limitations. This passion led to an intense interest in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience and psychology as they relate to teaching. By putting these principles into practical use in the classroom over many years, he has come to an understanding as to how to teach others to reach their potential.

Through innovative workshops and presentations, he presents practical methods that are backed, informed, and shaped by relevant research that he has tested on students for years. Students and teachers alike leave with specific ways to improve their teaching, learning, and practice in significant ways, and how to continue to improve upon that.

In the first part of our interview, we talked with Gregg about what drove him to reconsider what we consider learning, competence, and talent:

Q: Welcome to Musical U, Gregg! Can you please tell us a little bit about your background in music, and your background in psychology and neuroscience?

I’ve been playing some type of instrument or another most of my life. When I was 10, I already knew I wanted to be a musician, and by the time I was 12 it became, by default, guitar. I wanted to be in a band like the Beatles. Then I wanted to be in all sorts of other types of bands, and started playing in several of my own.

That eventually led to classical guitar, which is now my primary instrument.

I’ve taught music at every level, most recently at a high school classical guitar program in California. As a high school guitar teacher, I didn’t have experience with my instrument in a school setting – like band and orchestra people do. I had to figure out myself how to teach it well:

Over the course of a few years, that eventually led to a deep interest in psychology and neuroscience as it relates to teaching.

I spent a good deal of time learning how to read that literature, and it wasn’t fun – at least not at first. I am not an expert in neuroscience or psychology. I am an educator who has endeavored to genuinely understand how research in those areas leads to teaching, implementing, experimenting, refining and evaluating those ideas in the classroom

Q: I appreciate your drive and commitment Gregg. What is the advantage of working in a teaching setting rather than a scientific setting?

The learning crucible of pre-college teaching (same classes several times a day, multiple days a week, for years, with changing students) is a perfect model for learning – if one does it reflectively. It gave me the opportunity to try out ideas from psychology and neuroscience with thousands of students over tens of thousands of hours and refine their actual use in practice.

The scientists simply don’t have the luxury of that large a research sample. The rigors of their method don’t allow the nimbleness to respond on a minute-by-minute basis and hone the practical applications of their research.

Q: Yes. I see how your work is closing the gap between research and implementation. What lessons have you learned from music teaching that apply to other fields of learning?

Think about it: in music performance, a “grade” of 90% means failure. Nobody wants to hear a performance in which the musicians play one out of every 10 notes wrong. And since teaching music works the same as teaching anything, I concluded it would be beneficial to all to learn what music teachers do to get everyone to 98% (which is really a barely acceptable public performance).

Now, I educate teachers, coaches, and students of all subjects on how high-efficiency learning (or what more accurately could be called “learning”) works.

Q: You’re very passionate about teaching others to learn so that they can surpass their perceived limitations. In the process, you’ve reexamined the idea of “basic competence”. What’s wrong with the expectations of the education systems?

I think that is one of the single most important questions before us, and I’m not exaggerating.

From unconscious teacher prejudice to systemic “testing”, the education system shackles our students with all kinds of assumptions as to their innate abilities.

If it turns out that everyone is capable of competent performance in just about anything, including all academic subjects, all trades, and all arts, then the way we approach learning is totally different.

Let’s say that every student – properly placed with the basic foundation to start a class – can fulfill all the requirements of the class. If attention is paid to completing the daily assignments on time, then all of a sudden the idea that a grade of 89% represents competent performance should be reconsidered.

We don’t accept 89% with anything else in life. If we paid for something and only got 89% we wouldn’t be happy. If we got our dry cleaning back, and only 89% of the stains were removed, we wouldn’t pay for it. Everywhere, the idea of basic competence is that a job is done well and someone knows how to do it – everywhere but academics, that is.

The knowledge that one can absolutely learn something well if they follow a particular procedure is a powerful tool to engage students. Best of all, it is the truth, not some empty slogan to try and motivate students. Just let them experience it; it speaks for itself.

If we look at teaching this way, then anything below a competent level of performance is seen as a challenge to figure out why the student isn’t achieving at a certain level, instead of an indication of innate lack of ability. We can then make a decisive plan to get them to where they need to be.

I think that may be a good description of how teaching and learning works best: troubleshooting the learning process rather than looking for trouble in the student.

For example, if we find that students cannot learn what they’re being taught because they do not have the proper foundation going into that class, then they have the clear choice to remediate the skills they don’t have.

If we, as teachers, ascribe these significant differences in competent performance to what we believe are innate limitations, we remove responsibility from ourselves.

Q: We are all so diverse. Do you really believe that we don’t each have some level of limitation?

If we discover through a careful, respectful procedure that these innate limitations exist, then that’s fine, and that is all we can do. However, way more often than not, the innate limitation is in our teaching, not the student.

We rely way too heavily on diagnosing the student to get us off the hook. I think it’s incumbent upon the entire educational community to take a good, close, serious look at this issue beyond a couple of newspaper articles, and do some serious work in the classroom and in research.

If it turns out we have misunderstood how some of the finer points work, and can tweak them within the framework of our already good teaching, then we know what the solutions are.

Whether we can afford them, or whether they are all implementable, is debatable, but we have to know what they are to start with, and this knowledge helps inform us in our day-to-day interactions with students.

Q: There’s so much inertia in our educational systems – and in all of us who came through those systems and cultural expectations – to keep doing things as we did in the past. How do you move past this?

The change begins with the learners.

Perhaps my greatest motivation for getting students past their perceived limitations is the significant self-esteem and thirst for more knowledge and accomplishment that comes with genuine accomplishment and pushing, just a little, past what one thought was impossible.

The first stage is generally unpleasant and most people don’t want to do it; it’s easier for them to stay in their comfort zone.

I love pushing a little bit.

Yes, it can be slightly uncomfortable, but once they get on the other side and truly learn…! Notice the priceless look on a student’s face when they do things they couldn’t do before.

That motivates a lot more work like this, which just makes a lot more work possible, and you get the idea. That is a great gift to give to a person – young, old, or in-between.

I call this a “light bulb moment”, and there is nothing like it. Not phony praise, but real genuine accomplishment. This leads to what one researcher calls “flow”. This is the enjoyable state when we are immersed in doing work and time melts off the clock. We get a lot done and we do some of our best work, but it seems easy and transcends time.

Some people call this “the zone”. It is a real psychological state, but the price of admission is doing the work to acquire basic skills in order to do higher level work.

Q: Terrific. So many think of the zone as a mystical, magical (and often unattainable) state. But you’ve broken down the steps to get there. Now, you are quite keen about the idea that there is no such thing as “talent”, that “learning how to learn” is the key to musical success. How did you come to develop this opinion?

Well, talent may exist, but it appears not to matter.

When I started teaching, I thought it would be unfair to expect the same thing from the “talented” students as the “untalented” ones.

I looked hard for “talent” for five years and I could not find it.

Over the next five years, it began to appear that talent was really where desire met dedication met discipline met determination.

Over time, I came to realize that with the right teaching, the levels of those elements translated to the level of talent. When I started teaching with this understanding in mind, the results were humbling.

Q: Fascinating. How did that change your ideas about talent?

Well, I then started reading all that I could about talent, and I can tell you that there is no evidence for it. Now, please don’t take that statement out of context.

If we wanted to identify how our muscles get bigger, we know the specific internal biological cause and effect that weightlifting and nutrition have on muscles, and how they get bigger as a result of that work.

Everyone on any side of the talent debate believes that the right kind of hard work is necessary.

We know the kind of work needed for skill development, we know what it does to the brain, and we know everyone’s brain works that way. Yet, unlike with strength training, we are convinced that for skill development, there is some unknown additional element – “talent”.

This is a very deep and nuanced discussion that most people have not considered beyond just knowing it exists. This discussion should be of primary concern for educators and learners.

Q: So, Gregg, what is the difference between the ability to learn a skill and “talent”?

Nothing, as far as I can tell.

However, many people use the word “talent” to describe already-developed skill. It basically means, “That person is very highly skilled for whatever level they are at in their development”.

Mozart was not born a genius

I highly recommend the book “Talent Is Overrated for a well-written and interesting description on the matter, as well as other highly valuable information.

It seems that short of disability, which is another specialty different from what I’m addressing here, everybody has the ability to learn a skill and continue to improve over time if they choose to do the right amount and type of work. To use the name of my blog: “Talent Optional”.

That’s a great slogan, Gregg! So many music learners have such a strong desire to express themselves through music, but bump up against their perceived limitations. Thank you so much for sharing this valuable perspective, and we look forward to hearing more of the nitty-gritty on how to apply these principles to our own musical practice.

Learning to Learn

Have you ever come up against places in your music that you practice over and over and can never seem to learn? Did you then wonder if you were just not talented enough?

Next time, Gregg will explain more about talent and to acquire it, and about other learning strategies based in psychology and neuroscience to help you reach beyond what you thought were your limits. But if you don’t want to wait until then, read more at his Talent Optional blog and even work with Gregg directly at Feel the Blearn.