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The 10,000 hour myth and the value of intentional instruction

I like Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff. I especially liked his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In Outliers, Gladwell addresses the question of what makes high-achievers successful. And he cites some of the research by Anders Ericsson demonstrating that to become an expert at something, a person needs to devote 10,000 hours practicing and working on that one thing.

Gladwell made the idea seem plausible. Even doable. And it sounds like a great idea. Work hard at something long enough and you get good at it. Even great at it.

But a recent book by Daniel Goleman debunks the 10,000 hour “mythology” and suggests a more complex truth behind Gladwell’s simplistic take on the theory. In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Goldman says the 10,000 hour idea is only half true.

It’s not the amount of time you spend doing something that is the key variable. It’s the quality of time you spend doing something. It makes sense when you think about it. During my high school and college soccer coaching years, we stressed fundamentals and repetition during every practice. But the key is that the repetitions have to be quality reps, they have to be done correctly and constantly adjusted.

Goleman quotes Ericsson

You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal. You have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.

Goleman calls this “deliberate practice . . .”

persistent training to which you give your full concentration rather than just your time, guided by a skilled expert, coach, or mentor.

He goes on to identify a second element that is necessary for success. This second element is a feedback loop. This feedback allows you to see errors and correct them as they occur.

Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye . . . If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.”

All of this should sound familiar. This is what you do every day with kids, right?

The new Kansas state social studies standards, the new NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life national standards, and the Common Core ELA literacy standards for History and Government are all saying the same thing . . . that content is important but there has to be process too. There has to be historical thinking skills and problems solving skills and research skills and communication skills and lots of stuff besides just people, places, and events.

But back in 2001, Sam Wineburg wrote that historical thinking is an “unnatural act,” an act that must be taught and practiced intentionally. It’s a deliberate practice that our kids have to learn and then do over and over and over again. But it can’t be simple repetitions. The repetitions must be mentored with errors corrected by experts.

That’s what you do every day. Being intentional about your instruction. Focusing on the discipline specific fundamentals – historical thinking, sourcing evidence, asking great questions, researching, solving authentic problems, communicating solutions. Together with your expert feedback, these are the kinds of activities that focus on quality time, that support students moving toward becoming experts themselves.

Constant lectures with required outline notes, mind-numbing packets of worksheets, listening to other students read from the textbook, and covering all of the chapters in the book focus instead on the amount of time, on simply filling the minutes until the bell rings.

We need to remain intentional about creating quality experiences for our students. Because it’s more than just the time we spend with our kids, it’s what we do with the time that matters.

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