The 10K Hour Rule: Deliberate Practice leads to Expertise, and Teaching can trump Genetics
A recent article in Slate (see here) suggests that practice may not lead to expertise, that the “10,000 hour rule” is wrong. The “10,000 hour rule” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (see excerpt here), but really comes from an important paper by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Ericsson claimed that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice results in expert-level performance.
The Slate article is based mostly on a new meta-analysis (see here) by Macnamara, Hambrick (also a co-author on the Slate article), and Oswald which reviewed and combined studies on expertise. They found that practice always was positively correlated with better performance, but did not explain all of (or even most of) the difference in expertise between study participants. The Slate article authors suggest, then, that deliberate practice is not as important as genetics or innate talent.
Deliberate practice left more of the variation in skill unexplained than it explained…There is now compelling evidence that genes matter for success, too…What all of this evidence indicates is that we are not created equal where our abilities are concerned.
The paper and article make two big mistakes that leave the “10,000 hour rule” as valid and valuable. The first is that practice is not the same as deliberate practice, and the second is that the fallback position can’t be genetics/innate talent. In general, their argument hinges on practice hours all being of equal value, which shows a lack of appreciation for the role of teaching.
Practice is not the same as deliberate practice
Ericsson was pretty clear in his paper that all practice is not created equal. Deliberate practice is challenging, focused on the skills that most need to be developed, with rapid feedback. (Here’s a nice blog post explaining deliberate practice.) Simply putting in 10,000 hours of practice in an activity does not guarantee expertise. Ericsson and the Slate authors would be in agreement on this point.
I’m sure that we’ve all seen musicians or athletes (and if we’re honest, we’ve probably all been like those musicians or athletes) who sometimes just “phone it in” during practice, or even during a game. I used to coach my daughters’ soccer teams, and I can absolutely assure you that there were hours in games and rehearsals where some of my players really didn’t make any progress. They found ways of getting through practice or games without really trying.
In the Macnamara paper, whether practice was “deliberate” or not was determined by asking people. They collected practice logs, surveys, and interviews. The participants in the studies self-reported whether the practice was deliberate. Imagine someone telling the interviewer or writing in their log, “Yeah, well, about 5,000 of those 10,000 hours, I was really lazy and not trying very hard.” It’s impossible to really distinguish practice from deliberate practice in this data set.
The bottom-line is that the Macnamara study did not test Ericsson’s question. They tested a weak form of the “10,000 hour rule” (that it’s just “practice,” not “deliberate practice”) and found it wanting. But their explanation, that it’s genetics, is not supported by their evidence.
Genetics/Innate starts at birth, no later
The Slate authors argue that, if practice doesn’t explain expertise, then it must be genetics. They cite two studies that show that identical twins seem to have similar music and drawing talent compared to fraternal twins. But that’s correlation and doesn’t prove causation — there may be any number of things on which the identical twins aren’t similar. (See this great Radiolab podcast exploring these kinds of miraculous misconceptions.)
If you’re going to make the genetics/innate argument, you have to start tracking participants at birth. Otherwise, there’s an awful lot that might add to expertise that’s not going to get counted in any practice logs.
I took classes on how to coach soccer. One of the lessons in those classes was, “It’s a poor coach who makes all practices into scrimmage.” Rather, we were taught to have students do particular drills to develop particular skills. (Sound like deliberate practice?) For example, if my players were having trouble dribbling, I might have them dribble a ball in a line around cones, across distances, through obstacles.
Can you imagine a child who one day might play in a soccer team with official practices — but before those practices and perhaps even before joining a team might dribble a ball around the neighborhood? Wouldn’t that be developing expertise? And yet, it wouldn’t be counted in player logs or practice hours. A kid who did lots of dribbling might come into a team and seem like a superstar with all kinds of innate talent. One might think that the kid had the “Soccer gene.”
To start counting hours-towards-expertise anything later than birth is discounting the impact of learning in the pre-school years on up. We know that pre-school years make a difference (see this website that Diana Franklin sent me, and the argument for pre-school in this recent Freakonomics podcast). A wide variety of activities can develop skills that can be influence expertise. If you don’t start tracking students from birth, then it’s hard to claim that you’ve counted in the practice log everything that’s relevant for expertise.
The claim that expertise is determined at birth is a common claim among CS educators. Most CS teachers to whom I’ve asked the question are convinced some people “can’t” learn to code, that it’s genetic or innate to learn programming. That’s where the myth of the “Geek Gene” came from (Raymond Lister has written several times on that). Couldn’t it be that there are dribbling-around-the-neighborhood activities that lead toward CS expertise? Consider the famous pre-programming activity of writing the instructions out for making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (like here). If we believe that that kind of practice helps to develop CS expertise, then other “writing instructions out” activities might lead towards CS expertise. Maybe people who seem to have genetic/innate ability in CS just did a lot of those kinds of activities before they got to our classes.
The clock on developing expertise doesn’t start when students walk through our door.
Bigger than P=NP: Is teaching > genetics?
In the end, it’s very difficult to prove or disprove that genetics accounts for expertise in cognitive skill. I don’t think Macnamara et al. settled the score. But my point about deliberate practice actually points to a much bigger issue.
Teachers Matter is the two word title of a 2012 OECD report (available here). There is a difference between great teachers and poor teachers, and the difference can be seen in terms of student performance. If you believe that (and there’s gobs of evidence that says you should), then it seems obvious that all practice is not created equal. Hours spent in practice with a good teacher are going to contribute more to expertise than hours spent without a teacher. Look back at that definition of “deliberate practice” — who’s going to pick the activities that most address your needs or provide the immediate feedback? The definition of deliberate practice almost assumes that there’s going to be teacher in the loop.
An open question is just how far we can get with excellent teaching. How much can we use teaching to get beyond genetic disparities? Is teaching more powerful than genetics? That’s an important question, and far more important than the classic CS question whether P=NP. I believe that there are limits. There are genetic problems that teaching alone can’t address. But we don’t know what those limits are.
We certainly have evidence that we can use teaching to get past some differences that have been chalked up to genetics or being innate. Consider the fact that men have better spatial skills than women. Is it innate, or is it learned? It’s not clear (see discussion on that here). But the important point is: it doesn’t matter. Terlecki, Newcombe, and Little have found that they can teach women to perform as well as men on visual skills and that the improvements in spatial ability both transfers and persists (see the journal article version here). The point is that spatial skills are malleable, they can be developed. Why should we think that other cognitive skills aren’t? The claims of the Slate authors and Macnamara et al ignore the power of a great teacher to go beyond simple rote practice to create deliberate opportunities to learn. The words teach, teacher, and teaching don’t appear in either article.
Here’s my argument summarized. The Slate authors and Macnamara et al. dismiss the 10K hour rule too lightly, and their explanation of genetic/innate basis for expertise is too simple. Practice is not the same as deliberate practice, or practice with a teacher. Expertise is learned, and we start learning at birth with expertise developing sometimes in ways not directly connected to the later activity. The important part is that we are able to learn to overcome some genetic/innate disparities with good teaching. We shouldn’t be giving up on developing expertise because we don’t have the genes. We should be thinking about how we can teach in order to develop expertise.