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Saturday, January 14, 2012

The 10,000 Hour Rule of Practice

In the almost-words of Malcolm Gladwell (who writes for the layman but references really good research studies)...

For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do - the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s at Berlin's elite Academy of Music. Dr K. Anders Ericcson and colleagues divided the school's violinists into 3 groups. In the first, they put the stars. In the second, they put the merely good. In the 3rd, they put students who were unlikely to ever play professionally - the future music teachers. All the violinists were asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?

Everyone in the school started playing at 5. At that time, they practised the same amount of time a week - 2 to 3 hours. But when the students turned 8, those who would become the best violinists began to practise more than everyone else. They put in 6 hours a week by age 9... 8 hours a week by age 12... 16 hours a week by age 14. By the time these top performers got to the age of 20, they were purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instrument well over 30 hours a week. By age 20, these top violinists had gotten in 10,000 hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students totaled 8,000 hours. Those only good enough to be music teachers totaled just over 4,000 hours.

The striking thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't FIND any "naturals", musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any "grinds", people who worked harder than others but didn't make it to the top. Their research suggests that once a musician has ENOUGH ability to get to a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't just work harder. They work MUCH MUCH MUCH harder.

"The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - IN ANYTHING" writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

The PSLE syllabus is now heavy on thinking SKILLS. Mental skills presuppose enough practice to develop mental HEURISTICS, or efficient approaches to problem-solving.

Take Math for example, different tuition centres have their own proprietary heuristic approaches. Some centres don't CALL them heuristics but nonetheless, their students learn ways to approach problem-solving (which are, in effect, heuristics). In these tuition centres too, they practise, practise and practise in order to achieve skills mastery and to stimulate the natural development of mental heuristics. Tutors in tuition centres mark student practices and provide individualized feedback. They provide the NECESSARY skills practice required to do well at exams in school.

So, the next time a school tells you that your child is doing poorly because he/she has NO APTITUDE since ALL the math concepts have been covered in class ALREADY, please point out that teaching conceptually is HALF the kind of teaching required to do well in exams that are heavy on thinking skills. You can only learn skills through practice and individualized feedback, which the schools have neither time nor some people say "skill" to provide. At least one Teacher confessed that he is not familiar with heuristics and had to resort to buying external resources to teach himself. See here. Also, the next time a school tells you that it is normal to set questions that cover skills that have not been practised because the good ones will NATURALLY KNOW, please point out that no baby is born naturally knowing. Those who know, actually know because they learnt and practised at their enrichment centres OR with the parents at home. It is as simple as that.

The above type of research calls into question the raison d'├ętre of streaming into Gifted, Express and Normal. The Gifted get better because they get more practice and are taught more things, which students in Express could well be able to master too. And I have heard of at least one secondary school who gets great results with Normal stream because they do the Express stream syllabus with the Normal stream. And the kids get it. Who are we to judge what a child's brain can or cannot absorb? Why don't textbooks document mental heuristics in the same manner as books by tuition centres do? See and Why do I have to buy these resources to cover skills tested in exams?

There are non-GEP students who do way better than some GEP. I'm willing to bet that invariably, these are students with access to the kind of skills practice (that help the development of mental heuristics) that schools don't have the resources for, but are quite happy to test at world class standards. The result is that enrichment has become a MUST.


Karmeleon said...

My son has been to both OnSponge and Science Heuristics. It didn't help him at all though. For onsponge classes, he actually gradually got worse and worse through the year. And for science heuristics, he totally didn't understand what the tutors were trying to say. Altho' he did understand his school teachers.

petunialee said...

Karmeleon - I am sorry to hear that. Mine didn't go for classes. We bought the books. Grades went from Fail to 90+.

Karmeleon said...

Thankfully it's all in the past.

petunialee said...

Karmeleon - *Pat pat*... *Hugs*

Anonymous said...

Somebody from my distant past used to constantly say, "practice makes perfect" (I believe it was my Mother)!

petunialee said...

Theanne - That's such a motherly thing to say, isn't it? Along the way though, some mothers allowed the school's evaluation of their children to convince them that practice doesn't matter, innate talent does. I wonder whether we would have had Einstein and Edison if their mothers had believed the school's judgment of their sons.

Rachel Tan said...

Thanks Petunia. This is an encouragement to the vast majority of us mothers who do not have naturally precocious children, that with determination and tenacity, there is much for our kids to hope, dream and achieve.

petunialee said...

Rachel Tan - You're welcome!! I am glad this post encouraged you.

Malar said...

Excellent and Inspiring too!!
Happy Chinese New Year to you and your family!

petunialee said...

Peony - I can't... I absolutely can't publish your comment. It has been censored... Kekekekekekeke!

aimees_mom said...

Bwaaah... What did I say? I speak the truth!


Chris Rogers said...


You say it's all in the past. Is this because your son has now finished PSLE or because he no longer attends?

When you say he has been to onSponge, do you mean workshops or tuition?

I would love to understand why he didn't improve so that we can further improve what and how we deliver benefiting the current and future crop of kids coming through.

Thanks in advance for your assistance

Chris Rogers