By Kristoffer Kohl

Kristoffer Kohl is a former classroom teacher working currently as a policy associate at CTQ to further the vision of TEACHING 2030. He previously collaborated with a team of accomplished teachers to produce the report “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve.” 

During recent visits to a few schools known for their innovative practices, I was struck by one school leader who lamented, “We are not preparing teachers for the schools that we want; we are preparing teachers for the same schools we’ve had for years.”

By the time teachers have gone through the traditional channels to become instructional experts, they are indeed experts when it comes to school—old school.

Malcolm Gladwell refers to it as the 10,000-hour rule. We prefer to call it the 15,000-hour problem. Regardless of how you identify it, there are some strong forces tugging against innovation in our classrooms.

In his book Outliers, Gladwell posits that expertise in any field comes after 10,000 hours spent working at it. From Bill Gates writing code at his high school’s computer to the Beatles playing marathon gigs in Hamburg, Germany, before taking the world by storm, Gladwell presents an entertaining argument for those hours you spent practicing piano.

Unfortunately, this equation works in both directions. As Seth Godin points out, there are plenty of bands playing 10,000 hours of subpar music. Long hours may help you become an expert, but they won’t ensure that you’ll make it to the top of the charts.

Such is the rub for educators.

The average high school graduate attends public school for 13 years, amounting to nearly 15,000 hours. Tacking on another five years for undergraduate education and credentialing before becoming licensed leaves incoming teachers with nearly 20,000 hours spent in a classroom.

Each year’s newest class of teachers is freshly minted in the ways of yesterday’s schools. They are experts two times over in the way they view their instruction, classroom, school, and most important, their position in the education hierarchy. While preservice programs endeavor mightily to equip teachers with the latest research-based strategies, it is difficult to fight what has been ingrained so deeply.

I visited another school renowned for its blended learning structure. There, students in the learning lab were completing digital versions of multiple-choice tests. A worksheet with lipstick is still just a worksheet. Despite the wave of complex, educational gaming software sweeping across our digital devices and making Oregon Trail look like the Model T, even some of the more “advanced” school models struggle to internalize that learning is as much about the process as it is about the content.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of educators breaking from the moorings of the past and logging smarter hours with students. As in any field, innovation comes from craftsmen who experiment with their practices on a regular basis. The flipped classroom gained recognition for reconceiving our notion of instructional time, but I’m also thinking of teachers like Bill Ferriter and Marsha Ratzel who have explicitly built novel learning experiences into their instruction.

What elements of your 20,000 hours have you left in the past?

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