Researchers tell us that in order to become a serious expert at anything, from playing the piano to excelling in video games, you have to commit 10,000 hours.
Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book The Outliers begins by citing that research. But he kicks it up a notch with an idea that has enormous relevance to how we educate kids and specifically how we engage them in science.
According to Gladwell’s research into the lives of the famous (Bill Gates and Lennon and McCartney, for example) and not so famous, it turns out that in addition to those 10,000 hours (time) and interest in the topic … let’s call that passion … people need opportunity in order to attain expert status, a position from which they can contribute significantly in their chosen field.
Let’s create an equation.
T + P + O = ES
At the risk of overstating possibilities, Time plus Passion plus Opportunity equals Expert Status. At the very least, these three elements are necessary to arrive at expertise. Not everyone will, of course, but there’s a much better chance of developing an expert’s knowledge or skill with these elements in place than without them.
So let’s take a look at what children experience in schools, specifically what they experience in science.
Time is essential, 10,000 hours more or less. Taking Chicago Public Schools as an example, the typical child is supposed to have 1,320 hours of science between grades 1 through 8 within the 180-day school year. The reality is probably less when you factor in testing days during which science instruction typically falls by the wayside, since it’s not currently a tested subject. Also, science is often taught at the end of the school day, which for young children in winter months means less science … because coats, hats, and boots. You get the picture. So it’s unlikely children are having even as little as 1300 hours of science instruction. That’s precious little time to develop expert understanding or even to lay the groundwork for doing so in high school, much less beyond.
Jeffrey Mervis, reporting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011 asked the question “Is ‘No Child Left Behind’ to Blame for Poor Science Test Scores?” Referring to the rather dismal showing American students made on the NAEP test that year, Mervis claims that U. S. students don’t know much about science. He quotes Francis Eberle, then head of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), “For 9 years, elementary school principals have been telling teachers not to teach science because it’s not part of No Child Left Behind. Now those students are in high school, and we’ve seeing the consequences of that policy.”
Mervis goes on to say, “Eberle is speaking about scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which measures student achievement in reading, math, and science at the fourth, eighth, and 12th grades. The 2009 assessment, which focused on science, found that 40% of high school seniors perform below the basic level in science and only 1% at the advanced level. Younger students did marginally better, with 29% of fourth-graders and 38% of eighth-graders falling below basic and 1% and 2% at the advanced level, respectively.”
Mervis concludes his piece by quoting Eberle again, “Despite all the emphasis on improving educational achievement, there’s been a 30% decrease in the amount of science taught at the elementary level, and opportunities for professional development have been reduced. It’s not that teachers aren’t trying. But there are fewer resources available to them.” And arguably the most important of those resources is time.
The next factor in the equation is Passion. I’d like to suggest that Passion is often a factor of Time. How do we develop passion? Isn’t it often by learning enough about something to begin to find it fascinating, to begin to discover we have a talent for it? First you have to have the experiences … do some work. That maybe ignites the spark, making you want to do more, have more experiences similar to the ones you found gratifying. And that takes time.
The final element in our equation is Opportunity. Opportunity includes time, of course, but it also includes having available resources, which might mean having the stuff that is necessary to do the work that can lead to developing passion and expertise. Or it might mean being in the right place at the right time. Or it might mean having an available mentor to encourage and shape growth. Whatever these opportunity points, they are essential.
In The Outliers, Gladwell recounts how Bill Gates came to be expert enough in computer programming to exploit the new technology and build a multi-billion dollar empire. The key to Gates’ success was a series of chance occurrences that provided him with Opportunity, for during the five years from eighth grade through the end of high school, a perfect confluence of events occurred that Bill Gates was able to take advantage of. To summarize, before computers were widely available, Bill Gates had access to one, thanks to the generosity of the mothers club at his school and their decision to use money they had raised to buy a computer that students could use. Gates had opportunities to use this resource even outside of school hours. He was able to parlay the knowledge and skill he developed on that first computer into other opportunities where his expertise had value in the real world, the world outside of school. Gladwell concludes, “By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own software company, he’d been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past ten thousand hours.”
Clearly, the time currently devoted to science and the other STEM subjects in school is not enough. If American students are to even have a shot at developing sufficient expertise in these disciplines, that needs to change. School is at least one place to start, since students spend a good part of every day in school and a good portion of every year there. But we have to do more than simply expand the minutes per week devoted to science during the school year. Expanding those hours of instruction in school is absolutely necessary … but not sufficient.
It’s up to us to provide more opportunities for our young people to clock those 10,000 hours. After school and summer programs can contribute to some of those hours. And having the material resources to do science and engineering is essential too.
The next post will focus on a STEM afterschool program in the south suburbs of Chicago, a program initiated by Governors State University and growing out of the partnership with GA STEM Institute. But for now, the takeaway is that absent sufficient time, American kids won’t develop the necessary foundation for expertise in areas that are essential to the future of this country. They won’t be equipped to become the scientists, technologists, and engineers that we need.
You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.