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10,000 hours and interdisciplinary learning

September 6, 2011

The notion that 10,000 hours is what is required to reach expertise in a given area has been popularised by Malcolm Gladwell and appeared previously in Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain on Music, and elsewhere – and is based on serious research.

This notion presents a challenge to someone involved in an interdisciplinary education project. There are anxieties that a student studying an interdisciplinary course will spread themselves too thinly; they will only study ‘a little bit of this and a little bit of that’ and therefore never achieve expertise or even professional standards in anything.

The first thing to do is to concede some ground to those who say that you can only reach expertise in certain areas by putting in the 10,000 hours. There is currently no way to become a concert violinist or a research mathematician without that kind of focussed dedication to practice, in the first instance, and problem solving and study in the second.

Full disclosure: I have not achieved 10,000 hours in any ‘thing’, like one particular instrument or one clearly identifiable academic field, and confession: it does bug me. But why does it bug me? Well, there is a feeling that that kind of mastery is what we would all like to have. To be able to pick up your fiddle and play like a god, or nut out the main points of the proof to Fermat’s last theorem so that you really get what it’s about seem, at least from the outside, to be the sorts of things that give tremendous satisfaction. They are the sorts of things that give you respect and admiration from your peers and a deep feeling of fulfilment, of feeling ‘on top of the tree’. They also appear, to many, to be a way to fame and fortune. These things many of us aspire to.

But I have to step back from here and interrogate this view. The grass always looks greener and there is something silly and romantic about viewing this particular type of expertise in this way. There is something suspect about it, too, with respect to work and financial success.

Firstly, what do we really mean by ‘expertise’ here? In my own case, I have never practised and played one instrument for 10,000 hours. But putting it all together I estimate I have practised and played:

  • Piano: 4,000 hours
  • Drums: 4,000 hours
  • Singing: 3,000 hours
  • Composing: 1,000 hours
  • Guitar: 500 hours
  • Critical Listening – who knows!

So I’ve put in well over 10,000 of serious music business. Now I can compare playing the piano, drumming and singing much better than anyone who has not done all three and I can compare, make analogies and connections between the different types of music that one meets in making music in these different ways. That gives me a better – one is tempted to say ‘deeper’ – overall view than anyone who has only specialised in one of these things is able to achieve. If I were pursuing music as a career, these wider insights might make me a better composer, critic, teacher – even performer, in the case of singing which generally requires less practice. They might also help me in allied work of music therapy in medicine or linking with other arts in theatre or dance, or in the computer industry, or in advertising etc. Is it too much to challenge the narrow idea of the “10,000 hours to specialist expertise” and say that I am expert in the interdisciplinary links between the music and practice of piano, drumming and singing?

These sorts of ideas of expertise translate well into many areas of serious academic research. Take a subject like cities. To understand cities properly, you at least need to know something of geography, history, economics, engineering, epidemiology – and probably several other things. To be an expert in cities, you need to put together a few thousand hours in each  of these individual areas. But not 10,000 in any one of them.

One can extend this idea almost indefinitely in academia. To understand the implementations of health programmes one needs, certainly, to understand a good bit about medicine, but one also needs to know politics, economics, sociology, history and so on.

The centre of the anxiety storm seems to be around ‘technique’. I think this is a valid anxiety. But it only applies in those areas where there is a very clearly defined technical requirement. I don’t want to decry technique. In fact, I think very little of value can be achieved without some kind of technique. The discussion turns on what we mean by technique for most of us, in most of our lives. There are many areas – in fact most areas outside such things as very pure science, maths, music and sport – where technique is not clearly defined by a narrow set of necessary attributes. It is these sorts of areas that interdisciplinary learning can best set you up for in life.

For example, I was struck by an interview in the paper the other day with a headmaster. This man is recognised in the UK as one of the best we have. He is knighted, earns a really good living and is credited with turning around one of the most difficult schools in the country. When asked the secret of his success, the answers he gave were almost ludicrously simple: ‘we insist students are polite; students have to wear uniform; they have to turn up on time’ – that sort of thing. Now, that man is an expert. He is an expert headmaster – one of the best. But the sorts of techniques he knows  are not easily reflected in how he describes his success; nor are they the sort of things you learn by practise or even adhering to a tradition of muscle exercises, specialist problem-solving and the like.

To rise to the top of most professions requires one to combine some basic things we might call techniques (of literacy, numeracy and other competencies) with a great deal of other experience and practice in things which are harder to pin down.

The anxieties about not learning enough technique at university on an interdisciplinary degree can therefore be greatly calmed if people are reassured that they will learn enough of the basic techniques  – in medicine, computing, foreign languages, engineering etc – so that they can then go out to the world and master an area all of their own. To be an expert in journalism, media, education, politics, work allied to medicine, engineering, communications, PR, HR, logistics – the vast majority of work that people do – requires the learning of techniques on the job and through experience.

There is no shame in that! There is no shame in being a brilliant CEO or TV documentary maker or, indeed, headmaster. Most of us would have tremendous satisfaction and kudos and, yes, wealth and sometimes fame associated with such achievements. The greats in these fields have achieved their 10,000 hours in what they do. They have mastery, they may even have what we want to call technique. But that mastery and technique can be best served by undergraduate interdisciplinary learning at university. This gives them the platform on which to build their own expertise for the rest of their lives.

Final disclosure: I have not read the Gladwell book – Outliers. Perhaps he takes much this line. If so, I hope we can enlist him to the interdisciplinary learning cause!

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  1. Resisting expertise « carlgombrich

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