Before we went away on summer break, I spoke with the MS students about hard work and the use of time (especially over the summer). One piece of data I shared with them came from Malcom Gladwell’s recent book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell demonstrates that people who reach excellence in their fields get there through a combination of good luck and hard work. Experts in their fields, he argues, need to practice 10,000 hours to polish their inert talent to the level of true greatness. How much time is this? Well, if you worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 1 year (with two weeks off for vacation), it would take you 5 years to get in 10,000 hours of practice. This 10,000 hour threshold, Gladwell says, is true in fields as varied as athletics, arts, and computer programming. To use the athletic parlance: No pain, no gain. Or, to cite a quote from the poet Robert Frost that is posted in one of our Grade 8 English classrooms: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
It was appropriate to talk about the book before summer break not only because our students were about to have a huge chunk of time on their hands, but also because the faculty have been given the book as a summer read. Reading over the summer, as Gladwell and others have noted, is pretty important if you want to retain the knowledge and skills you’ve worked so hard on during the school year. The “achievement gap,” researchers have shown, has a lot to do with what happens (or doesn’t happen) outside of school.
Interestingly, Gladwell returns to the notion of time towards the end of the book when he draws a parallel about the worldview informed by the Western agricultural system and that of the Asian agricultural system, in particular rice farming. Teachers in the US (and likely Europe) have heard for decades about the limitations the agrarian calendar puts on our academic system. Teachers see first hand that in the three months students are away from school they forget a lot. Despite these limitations, Gladwell shows how hard it can be to enact change to the system when it is rooted in history. The cycle of growth and renewal, work and rest, may be linked to the needs of the land but it is now apart of the culture in which we live and the systems we’ve created to support it. But if the soil that is used to grow wheat and corn and soybeans needs to lay fallow to regenerate and renew itself, rice paddies, we learn, need constant and repeated planting and harvesting to be most fruitful. This system, it seems, rewards a continual, year-long season of work. Thus the academic systems of many Asian cultures reflect this ethic with longer school days and longer school years. With less time off, students have less opportunity to forget and more opportunity to grow.
Certainly things are a bit more complex than painted by this picture. Despite the current Western trends towards scheduling every moment of our children’s free-time, most parents in our community intuitively understand the benefit of unstructured play time for kids — a chance to imagine, explore, be creative, solve problems.
It is natural that in the hyper-competitive global economy of today, every country is looking for that “edge” that will give its citizens a chance for a better future. This is why books like Outliers capture our imagination, even if I wonder how Gladwell was able to do it with the limitations his education put on his future.