10,000 Hours

The so-called “Ten-Thousand Hour Rule” became popularized after the 2008 publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. By popularized, of course, I mean that the discussion of the relationship between success and 10,000 hours of preparation presented by Gladwell was

simplified and bastardized so that it could be deliberately misapplied when presented to a populace that has been so stupefied that the work could be easily criticized and Gladwell himself vilified and crucified. 

Hey, it’s what we do.

‘Merica – the land where speech is free, and as they say, worth every penny you paid for it.

But why do we do that? What is it about us that makes us feel the need to “further simplify” a concept that a researcher, or writer like Gladwell, has already popularized? And this time, by popularized, I refer to the classic definition, “make (a scientific or academic subject) accessible to the general public by presenting it in an understandable form.

The practice would be easy to dismiss if it were done only by people in sales and marketing, politicians, and entertainers like those fine folks on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN.

But those of us involved in education, education policy, and educational research are practitioners as well. We take concepts which have already been popularized and base our arguments against them on simplistic interpretations which can only be described as absurd. My best guess is that it’s much easier to “solve” the simplistic problem defined by the absurd premise than the complex problem that actually exists. Note, this practice is quite different from argumentum ad absurdum or reductio ad absurdum, argumentation techniques which generally begin with at least a premise rooted in reality.

Education is rife with examples. I could discuss favorites like “validity and useless tests” or “Title 1, state tests, & school improvement”, really just about anything to do with tests. Instead, in keeping with the spirit of Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour rule (and the title of this post), I will address one of my pet peeves: Seat Time.

It’s a Matter of Time

Somehow, somewhere along the line, time became the enemy – and not in the usual ways (e.g., there’s not enough of it, I’m running out of it, it moves too quickly). The phrase Seat Time, composed of two four-letter words, became a four-letter word, a pejorative.

A brief recap:

  1. Once upon a time, well twice actually, a group of really smart people convened to discuss what kids should learn in public schools to be prepared for postsecondary success.
  2. The knowledge and skills they described were then translated into a set of individual courses, some might call it a curriculum.
  3. A sequence and total number of courses needed to acquire the desired knowledge and skills was determined.
  4. The frequency and duration that those courses should meet for students to have a decent chance at acquiring said desired knowledge and skills was determined and standardized with the assistance of a prominent foundation.
  5. States converted those standards into Regulations for instructional contact minutes.
  6. Student instructional time became a proxy for everything listed above.
  7. The focus of evaluation shifted, as it so often does, to enforcing the time required in the Regulations.

A reasonable person might assume that it is reasonable to assume that something productive was taking place in public school classrooms during those instructional contact minutes (e.g., instruction aligned to state standards leading to student learning). And, I don’t know, maybe set up some external indicators just to be sure.

Other people might conclude, no, the state only requires Seat Time. That’s it. Nothing else. And that’s all schools are providing, a seat for a specified period of time – well, some schools, not my school. That’s not good. Bad State. Bad Schools. Bad Seat Time.

Therefore, we need to replace Seat Time with, hmm let’s see, an agreed upon set of knowledge and skills that kids need to achieve to be prepared for postsecondary success. We’ll organize them into courses – no, not courses – we’ll organize them into competencies and lay out their sequence, no progression. Yeah, that should work.

And we won’t mention time. Nope, never mention time.

Forget time.

A Moment in Time

But we cannot forget time. Teaching and learning take time.

And as it turns out, across grades 1 through 12 students attending public schools in the United States will be asked to rise and shine for approximately 2,000 school days. At around 6 hours per day, we get 12,000 school hours across grades 1-12. Throw in a few hundred hours more for kindergarten to round things off. Take out the time that is not productive and the days students (or teachers) are absent, and we get pretty close to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

You reach the same figure – approximately 10,000 hours – when you start adding together the 800-1000 hours of instructional time per year that states require across grades K-12.

Well now, that’s quite a coincidence. What should we make of it?

The Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule

One conclusion, mine obviously, is that despite all of the historical, social, societal, political, and cultural (both socio- and agri-) forces at work that shaped the current 180-day, 6-hour school year, it’s not a coincidence that we arrived at a number of hours that adheres so closely to Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour rule to define a student’s public-school career. Rule #39.

Rather, there must be something that we expect students to master over the course of those 10,000 hours,

What expertise do we expect public school students to acquire?

To a large extent, I think a hint to that the answer to that question can be found in the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1989 case Rose v. Council for Better Education. In their decision, the Court identified seven “capacities” as the desired outcome for students in an “efficient system of education”:

  1. Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization;
  2. Sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the students to make informed choices;
  3. Sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the students to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;
  4. Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness;
  5. Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage;
  6. Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and
  7. Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.

In the 1990s, several states, including Massachusetts, formally or informally adopted these seven capacities. Massachusetts further elucidated seven beliefs about the values (yes, values), knowledge, and skills students would need to possess to be able to achieve their full potential in their personal and work life and contribute actively to the civic and economic life of our diverse and democratic society.

  1. They must recognize the importance of education as a lifelong effort.
  2. They will need to communicate effectively with others through reading, writing, speaking, computing, the arts, and technology.
  3. They will need to respect and understand people of different backgrounds in our diverse society.
  4. They will need to understand environmental and other issues with worldwide implications.
  5. They will need to make informed decisions for themselves, their families, their community, and our country.
  6. They will need to contribute to our society.
  7. They will need to take responsibility for their own behavior.

When I look at these two lists, the answer to the question what expertise to we expect children to acquire after spending ten thousand hours or directed practice at being a student, the answer is obvious.

After 10,000 hours in school, the skill that we hope these young adults have mastered is success at being a good student and learner.

It’s as simple as that. When you think about it, what else could it be? What else should it be?

I practice clarinet to be a better clarinetist.

I practice my jump shot to have a better jump shot.

I practice being a student and learner for 14 years (P-12) to become a better student and learner.

And would that be such a bad outcome?  Actually, I would be tickled pink and pleased as punch if the P-12 system graduated young adults who had learned how to be good students and lifelong learners.

Image by Gillian Callison from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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