Masters & Taskmasters

In the 1970s polymath Herbert Simon floated the idea that true mastery of a subject or skill takes 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. It’s somewhat arbitrary, and subject to lots of provisos depending on the skill or subject in question. Still, the basic premise holds true: 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 tasks, a sort of Taylorism put to the educational process, 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 accumulate the sort of hours that would lead to actual mastery in a more conducive environment.

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

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?

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