You must have heard the 10,000 hour rule. The rule says that the key to success is practicing your skill for 10,000 hours. But what if that was not the only way?
David Epstein, an American sports journalist, debunks the 10,000 hour rule in his book Range. The 10,000 hour rule can work for a chess player, because the rules of chess don’t change. But life is not a game of chess, and the rules keep changing. So 10,000 hours of practicing one thing doesn’t always help.
Developing a range of skills is a handy tool to survive in an ever-changing and unpredictable world. That’s what Epstein’s book is all about. But there is a lot to learn about learning from Range.
"Rote learning is not for the 21st century"
He gives Shaquille O’ Neal’s example. O’ Neal was famously bad at free throws. A psychologist, Robert Bjork, told him that instead of continuing to practice from the free-throw line, he should practice from a foot in front and a foot behind the line to learn motor modulation.
What does that tell you about the way humans learn? Learning the concept outshines rote learning. Bjork, who later authored a book about the science of learning, wrote that rote learning may help students perform well in the short term. But it doesn’t stick in the long term.
Research has found that struggling to learn and learning by experience is the best way to learn. Take another example. Researchers in Iowa read people lists of words and then asked for the list to be recited back to them. One group was asked to recite the list right away, another after fifteen seconds of rehearsal, and another after fifteen seconds of doing simple math problems that prevented rehearsal.
When they were asked to recite the list again, the first group did the best, the second group came in second and the third group performed the worst. And then when everyone thought they were finished, they were surprised with a quiz and asked to write down every word they could remember.
Now suddenly, the third group performed the best. That group wasn’t given an opportunity to rehearse and struggled to hold onto information because they were distracted by math problems. But that helped them transfer the information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Learning slowly and learning with difficulty leads to lifelong learning. Epstein argues that rote learning may have worked for the 20th century when the major source of employment was working in a factory. But in the 21st century, when the proportion of knowledge workers is increasing, rote learning is outdated.
Tech has a role to play. “The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one,” Epstein writes. Students should know how to think and apply knowledge to new situations. And it's the role of educators today to teach them to do that.