Sunday, November 13, 2011

Challenge 12: Practice

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#48. Name one book you have read in the past year, describe your reason for considering this book significant and what you gained from reading it. (Lewis and Clark College)

In the last couple of weeks, a debate has raged among teachers at school: Is six hours of practice worth it? The fall drama production is being staged this weekend, and the cast has been rehearsing until at least 9 p.m. every day; crew members have stayed until 2 a.m. a couple of times, preparing the lights and sound. The director asked teachers to go a little easy on the kids in the play this week, and the head of school even asked if the cast and crew could have a day off from school on the Monday after the play. Some teachers scoffed at these requests, wondering if the production deserves so much time and recognition. At the end of the day, it's only a school play, they said, so is six hours of practice really worth it?

The answer, according to Malcolm Gladwell's recent book Outliers, is yes. Six hours of practice is worth it if we want our students to become truly excellent. "Achievement is talent plus preparation," Gladwell writes in a chapter called "The 10,000-Hour Rule." He cites a study of violinists at a top music school. The students were divided into three ability levels and asked to count how many hours they had practiced over their entire careers. The researchers found that all students practiced the same amount at a very young age, but eventually a split occurred.
The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, six­teen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing—that is, purpose­fully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better—well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.
Gladwell reviews the young life of various masters—from Bill Gates to the Beatles—and concludes that all of them "practiced" for about 10,000 hours before they were recognized as excellent. Gladwell cites another source who claims, "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. ... It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

So, yes, six hours of practice for the play is worth it. It's worth it if these students—or at least some of them—discover that they truly love this kind of work and continue amassing thousands of hours of practice in the coming years. Alternately, some of the kids in the play may have discovered that this just isn't for them, that going to school full time and then really working for six more hours is torture, not fun. In either case, the kids have gained something.

If I think about my own talents, I realize that Gladwell is correct. I remember the thousands of hours I spent in my college newsroom, and I can understand why I'm pretty good at writing. When I look back on all the books I've read in my life—and the many hours that I spent reading—I can understand why I'm a strong reader.

Gladwell's book gives me new ammunition when trying to convince students to read and write more. If you truly want to score higher on the SAT or AP exam, if you truly want to succeed at university, you need to read and write right now. A lot.

But, really, Outliers is about more than succeeding on a standardized exam. It lays out a recipe for becoming successful at anything. Start with this question: What do you find yourself doing when you don't have to? Whether it's music or a sport or hobbies like dance or photography, what is the one thing you can spend hours doing without getting tired? Maybe it's worth pursuing. Maybe you can make millions doing this thing when you're in your 20's, but only if you put in the time and effort now.

The trouble, I think, is that not enough students are committed to any one thing. There are too many distractions, but also, there are so many minor commitments that take up time. Some students spread themselves too thin. Others get stuck in front of a computer all weekend. The very best, though, have one or two activities on their minds at all times, and they simply ignore everything else.

It comes down to proper guidance from adults. We're the ones who wasted our youth and have the benefit of hindsight. Even without reading about the 10,000-hour rule, we know the amount of dedication required to succeed. The director of this play is the one who insisted that the kids needed this much practice; more importantly, she dedicated her own time to the task and rounded up a group of willing teachers and staff to help out. The rest of the teachers at the school, instead of questioning the worth of six-hour rehearsals, should think about how they can help students pursue their passions.

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