Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The first 20 hours.

I have recently read the book 'The first 20 hours' by Josh Kaufman. He also gave a talk at the RSA (as authors do when they have a book to sell) and you can find the podcast here.

Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea that it takes 10000 hours to become a leading expert at something.  However, this premise has been challenged by a number of people such as Fiona McQuarrie.  Perhaps, as with many things, it's more complicated than first proposed.

Which brings me to Kaufman's premise.  The basic idea of Kaufman's book is that, although it might take a long time to become an expert, you can get 'good enough' at any activity in 20 hours. He identifies ten principles of rapid skill aquisition:
  1. Choose a lovable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subsets
  5. Obtain critical tools
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice
  7. Make dedicated time for practice
  8. Create fast feedback loops
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts
  10. Emphasise quantity and speed
He then talks through these principles, and also talks about the features of effective learning.  The bulk of the book is made up of case studies about six different activities that Kaufman undertook and used these principles on.  They cover physical skills (windsurfing, yoga and touch typing) to more academic skills (programming, playing Go and playing the ukelele)

I enjoyed the book, although to be honest I think that you can get the essential theme of the book from the podcast.  It was worth reading as an educator when thinking about how to structure learning so as to help students to gain initial mastery in a topic/subject

Certainly in my own experience, Kaufman's principles hold true.
Getting hooked
Just over a year ago I decided to learn how to crochet. I was looking for something to do on the train that wasn't just tweeting or playing games.  Crochet was a craft that I haven't tried before, and I thought that it would probably be more portable than knitting or sewing.  So I asked twitter for recommendations of teach yourself books, bought 'Crochet Unravelled' by Claire Bojczuk, and started to learn.  My first few hours were spent crocheting test samples and then unravelling them and then re-crocheting them.  I wasn't really bothered about making anything particularly, I just wanted to get the technique right.
Once I had got the hang of a few basic stitches, I started to attempt flowers and circle shapes.  Initially, these tended to be a little more 3D than I intended.
3D flower

A flatter flower
When I was in hospital for an overnight operation, I had the ideal opportunity to spend a concentrated period of time crocheting and managed to complete a hat for my daughter (hence the pink).
A very pink hat.

So within the 20 hours suggested by Kaufman, I was able to learn the basics of crocheting and create a reasonable product.

What significance does 20 hours have for school?
It is easy to see where the principles as outlined by Kaufman could be applied in skills based subjects (such as the crochet described above).  It is perhaps less clear how applicable this might be to more 'knowledge based' topics (and this is a question that Kaufman doesn't really address in the RSA talk).  Certainly in a school it might be hard always for students to choose a loveable project (i.e. one that they are personally very interested in).  
However, many of the principles are aligned with the ideas of formative assessment - identifying success criteria, deconstructing skills into subsets, and creating fast feedback loops.

Certainly, the fact that I can now quote the possibility of gaining 'good enough' skills is more motivating to my kids.  A common lament when discussing the 10000 hours rule is that they didn't want to be concert pianists - just better at playing the piano.  So the idea that we can now identify a particular skill and they can improve that in just 20 hours is more helpful.