Wednesday, January 21, 2009

10,000 Hours

In his newest book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a long, hard, in-depth look at success. In the book he takes apart many of the American myths about success and looks at what it really takes.

One of the claims he makes in his book is that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice in order to become expert in doing something. If you want to be an expert in swimming, you need to spend 10,000 hours swimming. If you wish to be an expert teacher, you need to spend 10,000 hours teaching. If you want to be an expert writer, you need to spend 10,000 hours writing.

He even helpfully breaks this down a little more. 10,000 hours works out to be three hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for ten years. I was talking about this with a friend and we figured that meant about five years to become an expert teacher. Then I rethought. Even if we double the number of teaching hours from three to six, most teaching contracts run a maximum of 180-185 days. So that again, in my revised thinking, works out to about ten years.

Then I look back at my teaching career. I still apologize to students I taught my first year when I run across them. I assure them that I have improved since then. By my fifth year, I was just becoming relatively confident. I had the basics down and was working on improving. It took me a little over a decade to really feel like I had mastered the job. And even that feeling fades on occasion.

When I add to that the thought that, according to statistics compilrd by the NEA, 50% of all new teachers quit within their first five years, I have a real problem. Why are so many of these new professionals leaving before they have the chance to acquire expertise? So I have known have run away hard after just one year.

I think the answer might be in the way teachers are prepared for the classroom. Most teachers have minimum exposure to students prior to getting their first job. They have probably interned, but that is such a short time. Also, there is always that safety net of the supervising teacher. Sometimes, more than a safety net.

For instance, my supervising teacher never left her classroom. She sat in the back of the room quietly doing paperwork. However, when the class would get too loud to suit her, she would raise her head up from that paperwork and look meaningfully around the room. Sure enough they would get quiet. And I would (the next fall) go into my teaching career with no real experience in managing classroom behavior. I survived, but it was a rough year.

Tossing new teachers into the deep end with nothing to cling to but an anchor might not be the most effective way to retain teachers and help them get to their 10,000 hours. Doctors do it with paid, years long internships. Lawyers do it with years of case file work. I think it would be exceedingly rare for a first year doctor to provide surgery unassisted, or a first year lawyer to argue a case in open court with no supervision. Yet teachers are required to this all the time.

Maybe some sort of paid, years long internship for teachers is needed. But the cost, some will cry out. It is too expensive. How expensive is it now to have rotating teachers? How expensive is it to future generations that the teachers they had were so very far from being an expert in their field? There will be up from costs, no doubt––but the pay off on the back end might well be incalculable.