I just attended a talk on a technical subject, the details of which I won't bore you with. (I will also decline to name the individual for various reasons. My apologies.) But part of that talk was about the natural of technical education. There were two points that I found particularly interesting. First, the assertion (which I had heard before) that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master something or to become an expert in a field. I came back from the talk to read a few blog posts, and note that John Scalzi has (in a roundabout way) said roughly the same thing, and gotten some flack for it.
This is connected, I think, to the second point he made, that it's important to draw a distinction between education and training. Education, he says, is cognitive learning -- you're learning the logic and formalisms, and basically picking up the tools that you need to think through a problem. (I'm going to call this "instruction", since I think the term "education" is counter-intuitive here) Training, he says, is psychomotor learning, but let's generalize it to reflex. Whatever you learn through repetition, you've trained on. Any field is learned through a combination of the two, and I would add that the general consensus is that the best learning occurs when you bounce back and forth between them. This is true of just about any human activity that can be both learned and taught, I believe: whether it's painting, calculus, martial arts, programming, whatever. Now, the optimal balance between the two may be skewed one way or the other. To learn the basics of calculus well, you probably need more instruction than training, but you definitely need practice sitting and doing it and playing around with it to hammer home what's useful and what isn't. (Yes, we teach the chain rule for a damn good reason, tricky or not. There are other similar tricks that nobody teaches because they're not that useful and amount to little more than algebraic origami.) Painting, on the other hand, is all about training and practice, with instruction probably being limited to mechanics and ideas like symmetry and perspective)
Instruction and training have an important role in learning any profession. In engineering I feel that this is sometimes particularly poorly done. The instruction can be top-notch, with lectures by some of the most intelligent professors... and then the homework and labs are examined and conducted by TAs, often grad students and sometimes undergrads. The students then lag behind in following the instruction portion because they do not have the context for what they're being told. Nor do I think that these kindergarten-style 'hands-on learning" classes are all that useful for many topics in engineering. Yeah, it's fun to jump right into building robots and writing programs, but you're over-training there, and in my experience those sort of classes simply do not provide the tools for general problems solving - there are just some problems that need to be reasoned out from first principles, and many more for which the common tools result in inelegant solutions.
Now, let's get back to those ten thousand hours. I've never heard anyone suggest, when repeating this idea, that they intend ten thousand hours of instruction. (In fact, a number of stories from Zen Buddhist tradition are centered around the notion that it is impossible to master Buddhism by sitting and being told about it; it is much better to be beaten about the head and neck) But are those ten thousand hours pure "doing"? If I spend ten thousand hours writing, with no instruction, will I end up a master writer? (Will I end up a good writer? Are the two questions identical?) What's the role of instruction here?
My answer, to which a number of you will probably disagree, is that you will master some kind of writing. It will be highly idiosyncratic (remember, self-education by sitting and reading and picking your favorite books is still instruction) and may not match what other people consider "good writing" but you will have mastered something. You may even make James Joyce proud. The role of instruction, then, helps guide those ten thousand hours toward a particular kind of writing, helps determine what the rules of the road are in terms of what people expect.
Mystery novels are a good example of this, since they so often travel in "schools". Most people would not hit on the British Golden Age style of novel (think Agatha Christie's Poirot, or Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey, or Margery Allingham's Albert Campion) on their own, but after reading a few, the style seems pretty easy to reproduce - but only experience and talent would lead one to produce a mystery plot that's both "fair" by the definition and baffling.