Recently on Channel 4, ‘Concrete Circus‘ gave a fascinating view of experts in ‘Urban Sports’ such as free running, BMX and trials riding and skateboarding. All had found fame through viral videos on YouTube and much was said by both sportspeople and those making their videos about the powerful audience online video sharing has given to those involved in ‘underground’ sports. However, what really stood out to me was the incredible focus and drive of these people, who made skilful feats look so effortless that the producers felt the need to regularly remind viewers just how much dedicated practice they had put in over many years.
The message was pushed home again and again; to be this skilled takes enormous practice. It reminded me of one of the central messages of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, where he cites research demonstrating that acquiring mastery in a discipline requires ten thousand hours of focused practice. From the study’s original subjects of classical musicians, Gladwell transposes this finding to successful people from The Beatles to Bill Gates. He shows repeatedly that to be so skilful that you make things look easy takes an enormous amount of focused time.
Last year my class of eight year olds had the first half hour of every day as ‘Independence time’, where they freely chose projects and activities which they were interested in. We often had teachers from other schools visit our class, who regularly commented not only on the focus and engagement of the children, but the high levels of skill they were showing in their self directed projects. One day in particular a visiting teacher had been talking to one boy about the 3D buildings he was designing using Google Sketchup, she was visibly amazed by the quality of his work, but stepping back and seeing a whole class doing totally different things she asked the question;
“How do you make sure they don’t just work on the same thing every day?”
My answer? “I don’t.”. Of course I engaged with what they were doing, of course I tried to make sure they were challenging themselves and pushing their projects forward, but what I didn’t do was artificially stop something they were engaged in order to make sure they got some enforced ‘variety’.
The boy she was so impressed with spent at least 3 independence sessions a week developing building designs using Sketch Up, not for one week, or a even term, but for the whole year. He didn’t get a wide variety of experience in his ‘Independence Time’, but what he did get was the chance to nurture a talent and an interest to a level which astounded the adults who visited our class.
You don’t become highly skilled without practice, but I sometimes think we can steal that opportunity from pupils by insisting that everyone achieves the same standardised notion of breadth of experience. 10,000 hours is a long time- nearly three hours every day for ten years. If they are going to become highly successful, we had better let children get started.