Masters & Taskmasters

Back in the 1970s polymath Herbert Simon floated the idea that true mastery of a subject or skill takes something like 10,000 hours or so of effort, which works out to about 10-12 years, given the normal demands of life.

Lots of people have had a go at that number over the years, and I suspect most would agree that it’s somewhat arbitrary, and subject to lots of provisos, depending on the skill or subject in question. I think, though, that the basic premise holds true: however you chose to define it, mastery takes time. And not just any old time, but nice chunks of uninterrupted time, so that a thought, an idea, an experiment, a hypothesis, an activity, a creative process gets its full due.

Thinking takes time. Playing takes time. Wondering, imagining, experimenting, coordinating, executing, these all take time.

This sort of time is one of the first victims of compulsory k-12 schooling.

School hinders mastery.

School hinders mastery by favoring task-mastery, slicing and dicing the day in an assault on time that lasts for 13 years. Children grow up in a place where natural, fluid hours are replaced by predetermined blocks of minutes during which one must “get through” the required “material” in order to satisfy the curricular demands of the day.

The process provides an assembly-line accumulation of data and facts and figures and grades and test scores, but little opportunity for curious kids to wonder and explore and allow time to pass unnoticed while they build and create and try again, and mull and consider, and tease out subtleties and connections and subtexts and contexts. Little opportunity, in other words, to whittle away at those hours leading to the mastery of whatever it is they would be inclined to master in a more conducive environment.

10,000 hours and all I get is this piece of paper.

Now let’s add the irony. A schooled kid in the U.S. spends anywhere from 10,000-15,000 hours in a classroom over the course of their k-12 schooling.

As Tom Waits might say, what are they doing in there?