10,000 hours

I attended some training the other day on teacher development resources, all of which were wonderfully backed up with evidence (oh, happy day) and was reminded of two professional development ideas: the first was the proposed concept, popularised in a whole bunch of books, but which I first encountered in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, that expertise arises as a result of 10,000 hours deliberate practice. The second was what I think of as the wobbly line of professional development, to which I shall come back to in a later post.

The 10,000 hours theory is quite a tempting one. The idea states that in order to become an expert, one must engage in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. You can cite all sorts of informal case studies on this: Bill Gates, Mozart, Tiger Woods, and so on. But how does that apply to being a teacher? We’ll ignore for now that Gladwell rather snidely, to my mind, points out that subject specialists who don’t become experts often become teachers, a rather dressed up version of the “those who can’t do, teach” saying. But when we consider how one develops as a teacher, as my colleague pointed out to me, we don’t get 10,000 hours practice. We get 10,000 hours doing which isn’t always the same thing. A concert pianist or ballet dancer can, and does, spend significant amounts of time practising alone, or with isolated support. A teacher isn’t afforded the same luxury of time and space. Imagine if the concert pianist had to perform for up to 5 hours every day, 5 days a week, in front of an audience, with very little opportunity to stuff up, lest the audience write a negative report on their performance, which could lead to their eventual dismissal.

I would also challenge the assumption that 10,000 hours deliberate practice is everything. A lot of theories now about expertise and indeed about learning seem to be dismissive the notion of talent and innate skill. It’s an uncomfortable idea, that a person may, through a combination of temperament, background, beliefs, and more, just not be suited to being a teacher. (It’s about this point I get accused of being a fascist). I would even be so bold as to say some parts of a person’s genetic makeup could have had an impact on this. (This, by the way, is not me saying that there is a teaching gene, simply that genes can have an influence on some of the things which will make you a good teacher.) I have practiced and practiced, for example, but I acknowledge my own poor hand-eye coordination: cutting a straight line with a saw on a piece of wood, for example, is something that bamboozles me, as is fixing bicycle brakes. I’ve been shown, read advice, watched other people, had on the job feedback, and I’ve tried them out plenty of times, but I’m not even close to being able to do it, never mind being an expert.

Other factors need also to be taken into consideration, like motivation. The mediocre joiner who decides that they have had enough of running their joinery business and would like less stress (ha ha) is less likely to become a great teacher than a mediocre joiner who has been inspired to be a teacher after working with several trainee joiners at work. Age also has an impact: for whatever the reason (there are several and I’m not going to discuss them here), you can’t get away from the fact that, by and large, the older you get the harder it is to learn language. You also can’t factor out class and money: 10000 hours is an awfully long time, and time is an expensive luxury restricted to the middle classes. Bill Gates and Tiger Woods may not have come from wealthy backgrounds but they certainly weren’t poor. There’s also the issue of task complexity. Managing a classroom, playing a piano, playing tennis, computer programming, these are all fairly complex tasks. But I learned to make good baked beans from a tin pretty quickly. 10,000 hours practice isn’t about to make me a better baked bean maker.

In a fair society, concerned with equality this is uncomfortable, and opportunities do need to be made for all members of society to succeed, but to say 10,000 hours deliberate practice is going to make anyone expert and that’s that* is a hopelessly naïve view of learning and development. 10,000 hours deliberate practice is simply too trite and simplistic to be anything other than an observation of some people in some cases, from which we can gain a lot of useful insights about the value of practicing a new skill generally, although “to get better at something you need to practice it” isn’t really something which needs a great deal of research.

The final thing that occurs to me is this. If it does take 10,000 hours deliberate practice, and we focus this on classroom practice, then based on me teaching for about 13 years, averaging, lets say, 22 hours class time a week for 36 weeks of the year, gives me a total of 10,296 hours. Hurrah, I am now an officially sanctioned “expert” teacher. Well done me. Let’s have a party. But where does this leave the novice teacher? Can she and I be measured fairly against the same criteria? We are, of course, but how can she best develop if she is expected to be performing at a certain level the minute she steps off the teacher training course? And development from here is the theme for my next post!

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*it’s worth noting that most writers on the subject do pick up on these criticisms and acknowledge the interplay between different factors, but it’s usually “inspirational” speakers of the Dale Carnegie mould, business leaders and politicians who whittle the complexity of learning down to funky “headline figures”.

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