If talent is not the dominant factor in expertise, should we all spend 12 hours a day drilling our children? Many Asian nations have had a fair amount of success with the long hours approach. There are many negative trade-offs associated with such an approach, however, so before adopting it, we should consider carefully.
Research since the early 1990s has demonstrated that the amount of practice has a huge impact on performance. The reality though, is that there are plenty of examples of individuals who have put in a huge amount of time on an activity and have not achieved a high level of mastery. The research of Dr. K Anders Ericsson provides some insight on the question of why some practice is apparently more effective. There is a good summary of his research here.
The main idea is that the practice must involve focused effort. One example he uses is how the best pianists practice. Many pianists put in hours playing the desired piece over and over. They often plateau at a certain level and further practice is ineffective. The best pianists rarely play the entire piece. They focus very tightly on the hardest sections, and work to create harder variants of the piece to practice. This type of practice keeps them outside their comfort zone and continually struggling. It is this struggle that provides the advantage.
Struggle is hard. It is easier to focus on the time spent and look for flow. We want things to feel natural and to feel in control. Effective practice however is almost always uncomfortable. We have to stretch our minds or our bodies in ways that they haven’t already mastered. When something becomes easy, it is time to step things up.
This approach is mentioned in Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, and covered in more detail in Bounce by Keith McFarland. The conclusion is that the very best world-class experts in challenging areas such as chess, piano, and basketball have put in at least 10,000 hours of focused practice. That works out to around 6 hours a day, every day for 5 years. If you look at so-called child prodigies in these fields, you discover that most of them have put in around this amount of time, and just compressed it earlier in life. If you want to be the best, this is what it takes.
In Bounce, Keith McFarland describes the story of the Polgar family. Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian Psychologist, had a theory that training was the only thing that mattered in producing genius. He convinced a young Ukranian school teacher to marry him and have children in order to test his ideas. They had three daughters, all of whom are now grandmaster chess players. His youngest daughter Judit is the top ranked female player in the world. Their remarkable story is also relayed in an article in Psychology Today, here.
Here is a link to a guy who is making an interesting attempt to prove this out personally. Dan McLaughlin began his project with absolutely no experience in golf. He is in the process of putting in 10,000 hours of focused practice in an attempt to win a major tournament. He began in April, 2010, and you can follow his progress on his blog.
My conclusion from this research is not that every child should invest 10,000 hours in becoming world class at something, although realizing that it is a possibility can be interesting. Instead, I think the value is in realizing the power of focused practice. Just a couple hours a week of really working in a challenging way at something is worth far more than 10 hours of working through repetitive problem sets. The question as parents then becomes, how to provide focused practice. It is certainly not straight-forward, and most curricula that you can purchase do not emphasize this aspect of learning.
As parents, we need to be continually thinking about how to pull our children into stretching themselves mentally and physically. I’m still seeking ways to do this for our family. One approach that I’ve had some success with is to continually present material that is a bit out of reach. Our children have often surprised me by really thinking deeply about something and showing me that it was within their reach after all. I will present other ideas around this topic in future posts.