My leisure time is often interrupted by educational thoughts. I am often sent scrambling to find a piece of paper after I have accidentally encountered a mathematical situation that I feel would fit great in to the classroom. Last night an episode of Modern Family piqued an interest I have had for months.
In the show, a father is desperately looking for a skill that he can say his son excels at. He creates a list of candidates, but settles on baseball as the most likely avenue for this success. As he and his boy are heading out for their first game, he explains the “10,000 hour rule” to his wife. This concept, pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell in his best seller Outliers: The Story of Success, is based on the idea that mastery is a result of repeated exposure to the feat that you are trying to master. In his estimates, he concludes that at least 10,000 hours are necessary to achieve the stage of “mastery”.
Gladwell’s book is filled with very interesting statistical analysis surrounding the concept of success. He calls into question the ideas of meritocracy–the self-made man. The typical math education blog may focus on these statistics and their possible implications to the high school curriculum, but that was not why I had to hit pause and make jot notes. I wanted to know if the 10,000 hour rule applied to education. Does teaching for 10,000 hours make you a “master teacher”?
The mathematics involved is insultingly simple, and far less interesting that the over-arching question at hand. Where I teach, there are 197 school days in the year. Although not every one involves direct contact with students, they all, in some way, are part of “being” a teacher. (Professional development, exams, interviews, etc). Each school day lasts around 6 hours. (If you subtract the countless hours on the field, rink, court, and stage). At this rate, a teacher should become a master after approximately 1,667 teaching days or just under 8 and 1/2 years on the job.
Teaching, however, seems to be governed by different “mastery” laws. Ironically, I think a master teacher is one that a) doesn’t believe that mastery can ever be achieved, and b) continually re-evaluates their practice with the intention to assimilate new, and better, components. A teaching career is long enough to reach mastery and reset 4 times. (If we use the 10,000 hour rule). There is a certain appeal in this thinking. Teaching should be a series of mastery loops; a good professional continues to achieve a cyclical mastery throughout their career. This may take the form of new instructional or assessment strategies, a new position in a consultant or administrative role, or a stab at higher education.
Conveniently, public policy often drives major revisions of curriculum and instruction every decade or so; maybe this is karma’s way of pushing us toward this cyclical mastery. One of my favourite educational quotes states, “perfection is an asymptote”; maybe what it’s trying to say is that when it comes to the 10,000 hour rule, teaching is–by its very nature–an outlier.