In my previous post I briefly described Gladwell’s thesis and drew some implications for homeschooling out of some of the examples from his new bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. Here I’d like to do more of the same.
In chapter two, Gladwell explains the 10,000 hour rule. The general point is that true mastery of any complex task takes around 10,000 hours of hard practice. The chapter is full of examples. For instance, Gladwell summarizes a study by K. Anders Ericsson of students at the prestigous Berlin Academy of Music that found that there was no such thing as a natural music prodigy. Ericsson asked the Academy’s professors to rank the student violinists (and later the pianists as well) into three groups: the stars likely to become world-class soloists, the merely good who would likely make a career in an orchestra, and the lowest level students who would probably never be good enough to play professionally and would probably become music teachers in the public school system.
Ericsson then interviewed the students and found that without fail the best students began around age eight to practice more than their peers. Much more:
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. (pp.38-39)
Gladwell demonstrates that the same pattern of vigorous practice leading to excellence holds true in many other domains as well, and that researchers studying many of them “have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” (p.40)
Gladwell describes how Bill Joy and Bill Gates both got their 10,000 hours of computer programming in just in time to be ready for the personal computer revolution. He shows how the Beatles practiced and played for 8 hours a day, seven days a week during stints playing strip clubs in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. They had played live 1200 times before their first public success in 1964.
What does this have to do with homeschooling? It explains perhaps why homeschoolers are so overrepresented at the upper levels of such competitions as the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee. Homeschooling can provide the opportunity for children who are motivated enough to devote hours upon hours of practice to master a subject like spelling or geography.
A second and related idea of Gladwell’s book is that IQ alone doesn’t equal success. Family and cultural background play a huge role in a person’s chances. Gladwell shows how people with high IQs frequently lack the “practical intelligence” necessary to know how to manage situations and deal with people. He shows how cultural backgrounds can hamstring us or give us an edge depending on the circumstances. For example, until a few years ago Korean airline pilots were far more likely to crash their planes than were American pilots. Why? Because of a deep-seated culture of deference to authority that made it very difficult for junior pilots to speak up when their captains made errors. But Koreans (and many other Asians) do much better in math than do Americans. Why? Because their deep history as rice farmers, a form of farming where hard work reaps rewards much more reliably than the form of farming historically practiced in Europe and the United States, has bequeathed to many Asians a deeply ingrained cultural belief that hard work will be rewarded. So Asians don’t give up on math problems. They’re not smarter. They just work harder.
Homeschooling, I think, has a complex relationship with these issues. For one, removing children from school perhaps heightens the cultural advantages and disadvantages that particular families possess for their children, severed as they are from mediating institutions that might temper the family’s influence. Parents who model thrift, persistent hard work, and so on will tend to pass those beneficient values on to their children. But there are many other values, many of them legacies of deep-seated cultural folkways of which we may not even be aware, that parents will pass on that might handicap their children in the future.
And what about “practical intelligence,” that crucial trait without which even geniuses fail? Unlike IQ, which is at least 50% genetic, practical intelligence is a learned trait. And where do we learn it? “From our families,” (p.102) says Gladwell. In this domain, more crucial for long-term success than mastery of academic subjects, every child is a homeschooled child.
Homeschooling families who are trying to prepare their children for excellence would find much material worth pondering in Gladwell’s fascinating look at what makes people successful.