10,000 hours

One of my several very esoteric interests is playing traditional Irish music. I’ve been doing it for over thirty years, and suffice it to say that it’s a very accessible, very sociable activity that is a big antidote to the pressures of working life. I need one of those… These days it’s played all over the world, and bizarrely it seems to attract a disproportionately large number of highly educated, very thoughtful folk.

There has been a long-running discussion recently on one of the online forums about the widely-known claim that it takes 10,000 hours of active, conscious learning to achieve mastery of a musical instrument. Would-be prodigies need to put this in before the age of eighteen

This is, of course, another example of a theory that is very difficult to test, though some research has supposedly been done. It does nonetheless raise a number of issues for anyone aiming to excel. Assuming it is right, at what point should one expect to feel fully competent as a professional? Based on my school, a typical teacher in Britain might teach about 22 hours a week. The school year is normally 39 weeks long. A quick calculation shows that on this basis, one needs to teach for over 11 ½ years to achieve mastery. My father (also a teacher) once told me that it took him some ten years to feel fully in command of his work. I think it took me longer; being a naturally rather quiet person, maybe I was a slow learner…

In fact one (hopefully) never stops learning, and I genuinely feel that I am still getting better in the classroom, at least when measured against my own internal aims. What is also notable is that mastery (insofar as I can claim to have experienced it) seems not to feel much like you expect it to – either musical or other. It’s too intuitive for a start.

One can link the 10,000 hours idea to the four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious  incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious  competence
  4. Unconscious  competence

A good example of part of that is the person who said, of playing a musical instrument, “It’s only when you can play a bit yourself that you realise just how good the really good guys are.”

Another way of describing stage four – by which I think we might also mean Mastery – is that it’s ‘in your bones’: what you are doing has become so much second nature that you just do it without thinking. You may not even feel particularly ‘good’ at it. Yet you may well be deploying all sorts of tricks of the trade that you have accumulated along the way, you may well even be breaking the rules of supposed ‘good practice’. After all, once you have learned the rules you can learn when to break them; geniuses aren’t usually known for sticking to the rules.

This is definitely true of Irish music, where there is an intangible ‘character’ to the real thing (as found very largely only in Ireland), People who have grown up in the tradition have – even when they’re breaking all the rules – ‘something’ that those of us who are from elsewhere don’t have. You can learn to recognise it, but replicating it yourself – most of all consciously – is much more difficult than it seems.

I hope I could honesty say, in my 27th year of teaching, that I have achieved something close to mastery. It is certainly second nature. My style is completely personal to me, it works for me when it comes to engaging with children in my lessons; it might well not for someone else. The trouble is, it is largely based on personality, a degree of acting, a degree of charisma, my own weird brand of humour, an ability to draw, a bit of rhetoric, a bit of wit. Not to mention a dose of reverse-psychology and a good dollop of knowledge, both subject and wider.

The system in which I work judges my skill by the degree to which I conform to pre-specified, uniform routines of centrally-dictated ‘good practice’, as laid down by the latest government gurus and inspectors, and aimed purely at demonstrating that every child in my class makes precisely the anticipated type of progress as laid down by statistical expectations. There are no tick-boxes for humour, irony, let alone rhetoric (which is BAD, no matter how rousing) – all the techniques that many of the master-teachers I know use all the time.

The expected practices – which are largely technical, not personal – actually seem aimed at a level below 10,000 hours, at those who are still in mid-journey. Nothing wrong in that as such, (they may both secure both minimum standards and point the way ahead) – but are they appropriate for judging those further on? In my view, they aim at a sub-optimal situation simply because it’s supposedly measurable.

One additional complication – when something is deeply in your bones, it really is not easy to make radical changes of direction just in order to meet the latest fad (which one can bet probably did not take 10,000 hours to dream up). Old dogs may not be able to learn new tricks – but is it necessarily a bad thing if the tricks they already have work?

We might also learn from 10,000 hours something about the speed at which children learn, and reflect on whether it is realistic to demonstrate anything significant in a space as short as one hour, as we are expected to do.

Am I to conclude that the system isn’t really interested in mastery – or at least, being the child of a bureaucratic mind – it hasn’t a clue how to recognise it when it sees it?


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