Dawn-Ellner_Flickr-CC-BY_webGladwell’s ten thousand hour rule, based on a study by Anders Ericsson, in his book The Outliers is frequently referenced by parents, educators and other avid Gladwell fans like myself. I like the argument that he made about the need for hours on task in order to develop talent. It sat well with my refrain to my students that everybody could be competent at math or science. Not just the chosen few who were perceived  naturally gifted.
Not too long ago, I attended the Momentous Institute’s Changing the Odds conference in Dallas where both Malcolm Gladwell and Tony Wagner spoke (amongst other fascinating speakers). During Wagner’s talk, I got to thinking: How important is the nature of these ten thousand hours? As Wagner put it, if a child is on the path to ten thousand hours of work motivated by Tiger Mom, how much critical problem solving, innovation, and talent will be nurtured? Wagner referred to the need for these ten thousand hours of work to be motivated by passion and purpose if the goal is developing innovative learners. By purpose, he means the understanding that you are not here just for yourself and need to make a difference. Are we helping children identify their passions and providing opportunities for purposeful work at home and at school? When engaged in learning a topic, how can we help children make connections between their goals, interests and selves and the topic being taught? Without relevance and opportunity for action, does learning really occur? It’s a question worth asking ourselves even as we speak to our kids about why they need to work harder in math, science, history, or any of the classes they struggle with at school, come report card time.
Wagner pointed out that, ironically, the culture of School is frequently at odds with the culture of learning and innovation. For instance, individual achievement is celebrated and rewarded at school whilst innovation in the workplace is team-based. Knowledge tends to compartmentalized at schools, whilst innovation usually happens at the boundaries. Classrooms pertain where knowledge consumes, whilst innovation values the creation and transformation of knowledge; classrooms tend to value a culture of compliance. A fear of failure, whilst failure is essential to the success of innovation in the classroom. Classrooms are driven by extrinsic motivation (grades), whilst innovation relies on groups who become intrinsically motivated by solving or building something. This is shown even if they may still desire recognition for the fruits of their labor later on.
Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets also helps shed greater light on how the ten thousand hour rule results in success or expertise. Click here to watch a 4min video.
In the video, Dweck says:
Expertise develops not just over time but by addressing what is learned from different perspectives over time…Research shows that just having a growth mindset really helps students in math and science in particular, but if that math and science is connected to real world things and if they have a connection to people who have been successful in that world, it just brings it to life.
Dweck’s growth mindset tells us that you’re probably not going to “get it” easily or in a hurry, but if you’re willing to learn, you will “get it” eventually. Further, you’ll “get it” even more meaningfully if you are learning in a context where you are engaged in thinking from different perspectives and where real world connections (things and people) are front and center.
Let’s distill all this down to the essence of what these three synergistic thinkers have to say about how to learn in order to gain expertise or success:
➢ Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. This helps manage expectations. It’s going to take a lot of time.
➢ Wagner’s culture of innovation. In order to support innovation, learning environments must encourage risk-taking, collaboration, and knowledge creation / transformation.
➢ Dweck’s growth mindset. This also helps manage expectations because it takes time to grow. It also takes interaction with real world experiences and thinking from various perspectives.
DESIGNING and ASSESSING Learning Experiences in Synch with these Ideas
How great would it be if every teacher designed learning experiences that met criteria matching the above three ideas, particularly the last two? In other words, if specific ways in which the learning experience involved the following characteristics were planned and assessed: risk-taking, collaboration, knowledge transformation, interaction with real world people, processes and objects, and strategies for thinking from different perspectives. Speaking for myself as a parent of three middle schoolers, I know I am awe of teachers when their learning design encompasses these sorts of BIG ideas. When they are challenged in these ways, I also see my children putting in some of those ten thousand hours with the joy that emerges from work that involves passion and purpose. When they are not challenged in these ways but are asked to learn more superficially, I see a big downward shift in their attitude.
Being a TEACHER of Anything = Being a STEM Innovator
Taking a step to the other side of the teaching and learning system, being a teacher and designing learning experiences in any subject area is an undertaking immersed in STEM processes. In order for the lesson plan to be well designed, there needs to be articulation of developmentally appropriate, school/district-blessed, relevant and meaningful learning objectives. There also need to be airtight connections between these objectives and student activity, together with planned strategies by which the teacher can access what students learn in a variety of ways. That means the teacher needs to provide feedback as the students learn (formative assessment) and, at the end of the process, the teacher (in most formal learning environments involving older children) needs to be able to provide her evaluation (summative assessment) of the end product. Finally and importantly, the learning design needs to include a tentative plan for next steps based upon the evidence for learning and evidence for what needs to be re-addressed or addressed differently. Not so easy. And not something that can be dashed off!
It seems clear that being a teacher of ANYTHING means being an innovator who is willing to try new designs and redesign as needed. All teachers are STEM innovators whether they teach kindergarten, biology, social studies, or fine arts. As teachers piece together the various components of their learning design, much like a jigsaw, they need to address numerous factors or variables, such as where each kid in the classroom is vis a vis the lesson objectives, what are the social relationships in existence in the classroom and how can they be nurtured and furthered by classroom activities, how can the planned learning design further the classroom culture as a learning community, and so on. You can see why no two classrooms are the same even if given identical lesson designs!
The questions for teachers as they develop professionally include: what is the nature of their ten thousand hours needed to attain expertise? Are they part of a culture of innovation? Do they have growth mindsets whilst also being engaged in thinking about their lesson designs from different perspectives? Does their work environment encourage the professional sharing of perspectives that stimulates the growth mindset?
Like most parents, I love it when I see teachers and the schools they work in showing their growth mindsets, and demonstrate their passion and purpose as they set about investing their ten thousand (and more) hours. The learning and teaching system works as a whole. So, we cannot really speak about the student’s 10,000 hours without also thinking about the teacher’s and the administrators 10,000 hours!
Here are some videos showing how we can developing Growth Mindsets in Teaching and Learning Systems:
Watch a 3 minute video from the Play Institute’s STEM Educators Academy

Watch a 3 minute video from Teachers College, Columbia University about strategies used by one school to build growth mindsets in both teachers and students. Students have to feel like their selves are both welcome and relevant in classroom culture in order for them to engage and grow.
Watch a 2 minute video from a school in which teachers (and their students) embrace growth mindsets and try out Project Based Learning.
Watch a 10 minute video showing a 6th grade classroom and a science teacher working on a Brain Safety Challenge
Watch a 7 minute video showing a Canadian school that has developed a teaching and learning system with a growth mindset.

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About the Founder & CEO

Dr. Koshi Dhingra has dedicated her career to STEM education and is passionate about having every child live up to their potential. Seeing a lack of girls and other underrepresented youth in STEM programs, she founded talkSTEM in 2015 to address the imbalance. She has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University, has years of experience teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs, and has held leadership roles in universities. She advises and collaborates with a broad range of educational institutions globally. Dr. Dhingra began her career teaching science in middle and high school in New York. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, three children, and two dogs.


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