Kung Fu Sully

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Man doing Kung Fu Outdoors With Pagoda

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do teachers naturally improve over time?

When you think of Kung Fu you automatically think of the ‘martial art’, but Kung Fu is roughly translated as ‘skill achieved through hard work’. Kung Fu can therefore relate to anything. You can be a Kung Fu mechanic, a Kung Fu gardener or a Kung Fu pedagogue. Walking the path of a Kung Fu class teacher means you have to put the hours in and keep adding to your bank of experience making regular deposits, becoming richer and developing your craft over time.

The 10K hour rule:

It was assessment for learning ‘guru’ Dylan Wiliam who said in 2013 that: “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

He’s right, we can all improve and the vast majority of us are dedicated Kung Fu pedagogues, but can we ever be master, or even grandmaster teachers? Do we naturally improve with time? After we have a few years of teaching under our belts, is there a point at which we can say we are expert teachers? Can we ever relax ‘in our skin’ as teachers and be regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’? Do we ever reach a point and say ‘we are Captain’?

Brace for impact!

The 10,000 hour principle is one we often hear in relation to airline pilots. Personally, when I’m jetting off on my summer holidays to ‘Someplace by the Sea’, I take great comfort in knowing that the pilot flying the plane has done it at least a few hundred times. I’m not that keen on tannoy announcements that say: “Good afternoon everyone, Bob Simpson here and I’m your Captain today. I’ve only done this a few times, but I’m sure everything will go swimmingly. Emergency exits are located …”.

At what point do we pass the faith test? Does a teacher really have to clock up an apprenticeship of 10,000 hours of teaching to be considered a good, solid reliable pilot that is going to get the plane up, fly it and land it safely each lesson?

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell claims that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. The 10,000 hour rule has been questioned as to whether it applies to all crafts and whether someone could perform at expert level with far fewer hours.  

Make it 50,000?

The ten-year/10,000 hour-rule was first proposed in research by Herbert Simon and Bill Chase in 1973, when they looked into the perceptual-cognitive processes associated with skilled performance in chess. They estimated that the average time taken between someone first learning the rules of chess and then becoming a Grandmaster was 10 years, but this extended up to 50,000 hours. Personally, if someone is going to operate on me then I’m looking at the 50,000 end of the scale.

Twenty years later and another psychologist, Anders Ericsson, said that there was nothing magical about the 10,000 number, but we should consider it an average. Ericsson said that what really mattered was that the type of practice you did: it has to be deliberate, dedicated time, focusing on improvement. Ericsson said four characteristics needed to be considered:

  1.       The motivation of the individual to want to improve their skill level
  2.       The pre-existing knowledge of the learner, i.e., do they understand what they are trying to achieve
  3.       The learner should receive immediate feedback and understand the results of their performance
  4.       The same or similar tasks, should be repeated. If these conditions were met, then performance could improve.

Putting those things into context then, it is difficult to see how expertise can be developed within certain disciplines where perhaps immediate feedback isn’t always available or visible. Practising free-kicks isn’t the same as teaching decimals to 30 children all with different ideas about what fractions are.

Int-it Innate?

Expertise is hard-won for most of us and putting in the hours is essential, but for some it just comes naturally. I once worked with a teacher who was ‘fresh out the oven’ of teacher training. Quite frankly, she made everything look a breeze! Her relationships with children and staff were second-to-none, but it was her subject knowledge and understanding across subjects that really stood out. She seemed to know everything and she quickly established herself as the ‘sage and onion’ of the staffroom. A teaching prodigy perhaps, but she hadn’t clocked up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in class as a teacher, but as a pupil, she had though …

The mantle of the expert:

I attended a training day where the poor guy introducing the keynote was shot down in flames. He said: “It gives me great pleasure to introduce a real expert in the field, please welcome Professor Somebody Something”. It didn’t go down well. The keynote said “I’m real, but I’m not an expert. I know a few things that might be useful to share, but I’m still learning. If you want an expert, then good luck finding one, because I haven’t met one yet.” He was furious and his anger was still tangible by afternoon coffee.   

The Sully effect:

Guru, doyen, ninja, kung fu, sage, specialist … is true expertise always out of reach if we are only ever scraping the surface? We endow ourselves with expertise, but how much expertise do we really possess? There will always be someone more experienced, more skilled and know more than you.

Want to know what a rabbit feels like when caught in the headlights? Then ask a shell-shocked teacher in a primary school how ‘expert’ they feel when they are suddenly made maths or literacy subject leader after just two years ‘on the job’. Their answer? ‘Not very!’

The expectation to be a Kung Fu maths expert and perform miracles whilst having little more than 1,000 hours in your time bank is crazy. A teacher shouldn’t be expected to be an all-singing, all-dancing subject maestro off the cuff – you just can’t wing it. You don’t land a plane on the Hudson with anything less than 40 years in the bank. As Kung Fu US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger said:

“One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training, and on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Teaching some concepts are so tricky, they are the equivalent of landing on the Hudson. If you need to teach fractions with insight, then you might just need to make some large withdrawals yourself, and for that to happen, you need plenty of air miles behind you.  

It takes a bold person to say they are an ‘expert’. True mastery is nothing short of a lifetime endeavour, which is why Kung Fu pedagogues never really aspire to grand titles or being on auto-pilot, but commit to doing the best they can and never stop improving their passion for teaching.

3 thoughts on “Kung Fu Sully

  1. An interesting post with some interesting ideas. Certainly worth pondering. Perhaps it’s too simple to compare teaching with flying a plane. It is a completely different skill set. Flying, I assume, is a very technical and mechanical skill (though I obviously have no idea!). Whereas teaching relies on passion, personal connection and relationships. It is also a profession that is constantly changing, especially with new opportunities provided by technology. I personally don’t think that any teacher should, or would, identify themselves as an expert. There is always more to learn. Personally, I’d rather have my children taught by an inexperienced, enthusiastic, passionate lifelong learner than an experienced teacher who claims to be a master. Master, to me, screams ‘fixed mindset’.

    Thanks for getting me thinking on a Sunday afternoon!

    1. I totally agree. I would always be wary of anyone who wanted to class themselves as an expert teacher. Education ( teaching & learning) is a journey not a destination. Success in the classroom depends on a combination of attitudes and approaches between each pupil and their teacher. The four requirements noted in the article has to be held by the pupil as well as the teacher – both are learners.

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