10,000 Hour Rule and the Teaching Profession by Ryan Bretag

Research is clear about the impact on student learning for a class with a great teacher vs. an average to below average one. While seemingly a no brainer, what is not exactly clear is how all schools can attain and retain the best possible teachers: higher standards, better pay, enhanced pre-service programs, mentor programs, growth models, or a host of other possibilities?

While I tend to think it is a combination of changes, I also don’t pretend to know for sure what is needed to enhance the quality of the teacher pool. However, I found myself pondering whether or not the 10,000 Hour Rule that Gladwell paid considerable attention to in his book Outliers sheds potential light on this subject.

In its simplest form, Gladwell notes that in his research there needs to be roughly 10,000 hours of practice before a person reaches a state where they are truly excelling at their craft: “The ideas that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” (Gladwell, 2008, p.40).

If Gladwell’s claim, as well as numerous researchers, is true, what does this mean for the teaching profession?

For me, it raised a number of questions that continue to be on my mind for which I don’t have the exact answer. Among many others, here are just a few:

  1. Are we providing the quantity and quality of opportunities needed for teachers to hone their craft?
  2. How do we leverage this “magic number” in our pre-service programs as well as during the initial years in the field?
  3. Is it a mistake to consider the school day, part or whole, as practice if there is little support? In other words, a teacher simply doing the wrong thing over and over again is not going to make them excellent at their craft no matter how many hours are put into it.
  4. Is there a need for an apprentice model such as the one seemingly proposed in Gladwell’s article “Most Likely to Succeed”?
  5. Do we need better indicators and judges of talent not just expertise?
  6. Do we really know what constitutes an expert teacher or is it something we just know when we see it?
  7. Most importantly, are we passing judgment on teachers too quickly and perhaps expecting expertise too soon?

The last question is one that I continue to ponder especially when numbers are broken down by weeks in a school year and the number of quality practice hours per week*:

36 Weeks x 40 hours of quality practice = 1,440 hours a year

Let’s assume that many schools give teachers two years to show they have talent and then an additional two before tenure is offered, the breakdown of hours is incredibly interesting. This means that the initial two-year judgment of a teacher is passed after little more than a ¼ of the magic number is reached. And, tenure is judged based on a little more than ½ of the magic number reached.

In many ways, it makes the startling statistics about teacher retention understandable as we seem to pass judgment on teachers way too early and in such a manner that has major implications for their future in the profession.

Most importantly, in thinking about current teacher evaluations as well as teacher preparation programs, I wonder if Gladwell’s discussion of the 10,000 hour rule can shed any light on ways to improve how we prepare, attain, and retain quality teachers.

*Obviously, these numbers do not reflect pre-service hours nor do they reflect what many teachers surely commit to in terms of hours of practice on their craft per week. However, it is worth noting that I believe Gladwell and others that are proponents of the 10,000 hour rule speak of practice in terms of work that directly improves performance: “before [Bill Joy] could become an expert, someone had to give him the opportunity to learn how to be an expert” (Gladwell, 2008, p.46). Thus, 40 hours seemed like a nice guestimate for this little breakdown.