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The 10,000-Hour Myth and "Expertise" in Critical Thinking

Critically thinking about expertise, practice, and mindware.

When I was much younger, my mother would say, "Practice makes perfect." Of course, this simplified phrasing—used to motivate impressionable young minds—wasn’t entirely factual, but it still made a good, broad point. If we want to excel at something, we need to practice.

Of course, no matter how much you practice, you will never be perfect at it. In some cases, you can practice something for a very long time and still fail miserably at it. For a while in my teens, I wanted to sing in a band, but no amount of practice was going to make me a good singer (i.e. flat and tone deaf were terms I often heard in context). So, the key to excelling at some activity is, indeed, practice —just as long as we’re aware of the caveats.

In recent posts on this blog, I discussed the differences between experience and expertise. I received some feedback in reference to "practicing for 10,000 hours" to develop expertise. When the topic of expertise arises, I often think of my mother’s words regarding the importance of practice; of course, expertise doesn’t develop from the ether. However, it doesn’t necessarily develop from 10,000 hours of practice, either — a myth generated by the work of journalist Malcolm Gladwell, based on the work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues (e.g. Ericsson, Krampe and Clemens, 1993).

The myth is actually a misinterpretation of the research, which suggests that lots of deliberate practice is requisite for the development of expertise. The "10,000" is an average amount of hours practiced by 20-year-old violinists who were on their way to expertise in their craft. From the research’s perspective, the number is not important— arguably, it’s arbitrary. Many experts do not require 10,000 hours (hopefully, that may make your passion seem more attainable). The nature of the engagement, however, is important; hence focus on the term deliberate.

Back to my failed singing career. I had been "practicing" for years. I even took a lesson from my music teacher (who advised me to stay in school and find another pastime). No amount of hours would get me to the level of singing for which one might hope and dream. Sure, there might come a day when I could carry a tune. But good singing? Not likely.

Conscientiously, I heeded my music teacher’s advice, sticking with academics and sports. Similarly, as I mentioned in my last post on expertise, I’ve been playing chess for 30 years. I’ve put in hundreds of hours playing. I’m still not very good. In both scenarios, I haven’t put in the deliberate practice. I play chess and I sing at times, but I don’t meaningfully engage opportunities to practice them.

Enter Critical Thinking

The same goes for the need to meaningfully engage opportunities to practice thinking—specifically, critical thinking (CT). CT and, in particular, the epistemological understanding at the foundation of both reflective judgment (RJ) and CT’s application requires opportunities to engage in scenarios that require CT. Essentially, we need to practice our CT skills; we need to regularly engage in scenarios that stimulate our disposition toward CT; and we need to think about the nature of thought and knowledge.

Do we need 10,000 hours of practice to do it? Probably not. Research indicates that the application of CT can be enhanced over the course of semester-long training (e.g. see Abrami et al., 2008; 2015; Butchart et al., 2009; Dwyer & Eigenauer, 2017; Dwyer, Hogan, & Stewart, 2012; Dwyer & Walsh, 2020; Hitchcock, 2004; Rimiene, 2002; Solon, 2007). Some courses are better than others and, so, results will vary. Nevertheless, there is evidence there pointing at significant improvements. But what about expertise in thinking critically?

I’m inclined to say no, first off, because CT is either something you did or didn’t do (e.g. see No such thing as "good" critical thinking); so it’s not like there are true "levels" of application per se. Second, you should apply CT only for important topics you care about. If you’re finding yourself engaging it a lot, I hope you’re doing it for fun; because, if you need to apply it very often, it sounds like you have a pretty stressful life —or you’re just being over-analytical —which probably isn’t a very wise use of resources; in this sense, "over-thinking" might not be a particularly conscientious move.

But then, if you don’t engage CT often, then are you really engaging opportunities to practice it? In one breath, such opportunities to engage are necessary to develop CT; but, in the next, maybe there is a threshold for competency here and, once that’s reached, engaging opportunities to practice it are no longer really necessary. Such a proposition seems counterintuitive, but CT isn’t all skills-based—it’s about response tendencies (dispositions), knowledge (epistemological understanding) and procedure (memory/information processing).

I often mention the scenario in which one becomes so good at the various skills and applications of CT, that it almost becomes like second nature — like it's automatic. I've argued that such thinking isn't really critical because if automatic, then it doesn't engage the RJ necessary for it to be CT — hence the importance of RJ to the process. I spoke to another researcher about this, John Eigenauer, and he advised considering the concept of mindware (Stanovich, 2009), which in context, might refer to mini-modules for strategies, guidelines or knowledge that can be appropriately applied in specific scenarios.

Simply, not all scenarios require CT, but many would benefit from the application of some skills or knowledge associated with CT. Instead of applying CT ('in full'), one might apply some associated mindware they picked up in their informal, day-to-day thinking — such as through identifying biases, credibility issues and illogical arguments. So, where one isn't necessarily an expert at CT, per se; they may well become very good — so good that it seems automatic (maybe even expert) — at applying some elements of CT. It can be argued that this is just a matter of learning and recalling rules to apply in specific contexts (i.e. the mindware); rather than actively adapting and working with information (i.e. through CT). But then, if it leads to a reasonable conclusion or solution, why not? For those interested in this line of thought, I recommend having a read of Keith Stanovich’s work in the area and keeping an eye out for John Eigenauer’s forthcoming article on the topic.


Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D. I., Wade, C. A., & Persson, T. (2015). Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 85(2), 275-314.

Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78, 4, 1102–1134.

Butchart, S., Bigelow, J., Oppy, G., Korb, K., & Gold, I. (2009). Improving critical thinking using web-based argument mapping exercises with automated feedback. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25, 2, 268–291.

Dwyer, C. P., & Eigenauer, J. D. (2017). To teach or not to teach critical thinking: A reply to Huber and Kuncel. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 26, 92-95.

Dwyer, C. P., Hogan, M. J., & Stewart, I. (2012). An evaluation of argument mapping as a method of enhancing critical thinking performance in e-learning environments. Metacognition and Learning, 7, 219–244.

Dwyer, C. P., & Walsh, A. (2020). An exploratory quantitative case study of critical thinking development through adult distance learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68, 17-35.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

Hitchcock, D. (2004). The effectiveness of computer-assisted instruction in critical thinking. Informal Logic, 24, 3, 183–218.

Rimiene, V. (2002). Assessing and developing students’ critical thinking. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 2, 1, 17–22.

Solon, T. (2007). Generic critical thinking infusion and course content learning in Introductory Psychology. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34, 2, 95–109

Stanovich, Keith. 2009. What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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