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On Time

I recently read with horror of students in South Korea who arrive at school early by American standards, stay through lunch and dinner, and don't get home until after midnight.  This is their regular routine!  Little wonder, I thought, that they score in the very top tier of students world wide on the PISA reports.  But at what price?  What of their lost childhood?

But then I thought about From the Top, a wonderful weekly radio program featuring teenage performers of classical music.  These young people are extraordinary.  Many have played with leading symphony orchestras.  When the host interviews them, it is clear that, though they spend enormous amounts of time practicing, they love what they do and seem not to be drones but regular teenagers, full of fun and interested in many things.

And then there are the teens who spend every waking minute that they are not in class playing basketball, and the ones who get really good at it, who go on to make a career of it.  We don't mourn their lost childhood, any more than we mourn the lost childhood of the very talented players of the flute or the violin we listen to on Saturday afternoon on From the Top.

Malcom Gladwell tells us in his engrossing book, Outliers, that it might not be God-given talent that accounts for their great skill at the violin or basketball, but the time they put in.  Or, not time exactly, but the time they spend practicing.  He is very persuasive on the point that talent is overrated, that many people could have done what these impressive young people have managed to accomplish if only they had buckled down and put the hard work and time into it.

But that is not quite right, either.  Gladwell, drawing on the work of neurologist Daniel Levitin, makes the point that real expertise seems to take about 10,000 hours of practice to develop, irrespective of the field of the expert.  Practice, it seems, is more than time put it.  Practice is about trying to get better, not just doing the same thing over and over again.  Even better is trying to get better under the supervision of someone who is a good coach.  Even better is trying to get better in a disciplined way.  This research does not lead to the conclusion that anyone can be an expert if they just work at it hard enough and long enough.  But it does seem to indicate that many of us can get very good at our work if we just work at it hard enough and long enough in a disciplined way.

So what makes one young person decide to put that kind of time in on basketball, another on the violin, another on science and another on nothing at all?  And how many of those who make such decisions--apart from the 'nothing at all' decision, get the help they need to get better and better at the field they choose to pursue? 

Children often decide to pursue something they think they can be good at, and, if they pursue it long enough and put enough work into it, they often turn out to be very good at it, not because of innate talent, but because they have put enough work into getting better and better at it.

What are we to conclude from this about schooling?  First, that good teaching is not just about conveying the material well, but about helping students make that connection to something they think they can be good at, something they really want to work hard at, something they want to put the time into.  And then, when that spark is lit, fanning it into a flame, giving the student who has found an interest the support and encouragement to produce the interest in spending the time and effort and exhibiting the discipline necessary to get really good at it.

But the lesson does not apply only to students.  The 10,000-Hour Rule applies just as surely to teachers.  Half of the young people who leave our schools of education for the classroom are gone in five years to take up other careers.  That is not enough time to get in the 10,000 hours needed to become expert teachers.  And not all of those who remain become expert teachers, but many are just putting in their time, rather than practicing in a disciplined way to become expert teachers.  Interestingly, the average time in service for professionals in the high status professions in the United States is more than three times that of school teachers.  Even more interesting, the average time in service for teachers in the top-performing countries is about the same as for high status professionals in the United States.  So the average graduate of a teacher education institution in the top-performing countries has a much better chance of developing real expertise as a teacher than does an American teacher.  Time, in other words, makes a big difference, but is much more likely to make a big difference if it is put into a disciplined effort to improve performance.

But then, of course, there is the issue of how much time is available to improve the teacher's performance.  Although teacher-pupil ratios in the United States and other higher-performing countries is often the same, the amount of time available to teachers in the United States to improve their performance is much less, because the amount of time American teachers are supposed to be in front of their students is much higher than in other countries.  So teachers in other countries have more time to observe the teaching of master teachers, to work with each other on curriculum development and to get coaching on their own teaching.  So American teachers get less time to improve their practice both because they leave teaching earlier and because they don't get as much time to improve their teaching while they are teachers as their counterparts in higher-performing countries.

Lest you are still perplexed about the South Korean students, I will point out that Finnish students seem to do as well as the South Korean students on international comparisons of student achievement, but don't put in anywhere near the time on their studies that the South Koreans do.  I'm not sure why that is.  Maybe our organization will have to send yet another team to Finland, this time to look at this issue of time and how it is used.  There are still puzzles here.

But puzzles notwithstanding, time, it seems, matters, especially if that time is put into disciplined practice.  Worth keeping in mind.
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