Only One Road to Mastery


Statue of Bruce Lee | Chintunglee

A blog I recommend putting into your Feedly or NewsBlur lists (or sign up for the newsletter) is Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Eric Barker provides insights gleaned from research and experts on productivity, leadership, and life fulfillment that are often relevant to the classroom.

In an interview with author Cal Newport about how to become an expert, for example, I found this particular passage interesting, especially in its relation to education:

I think when people want to get better at something the biggest mistake they make is seeking flow. It’s a very enjoyable state. It’s where you’re lost in what you’re doing, you’re applying your skills seamlessly and fluidly, and you feel like you have control. 
But we know from research on how people actually gain expert levels of performance that the actual state in which you’re getting better is one of strain, and that’s different than flow. It’s a state where you actually feel like you’re being stretched. It’s uncomfortable. You’re doing things beyond your current abilities. It’s not fluid. You’re not necessarily lost. Your mind might be saying, “This is terrible. This is terrible. Check your e-mail. This is terrible. What if there is something on Facebook?“ 
We avoid that for the most part, but we know that if you just keep doing what you know how to do already, you’ll hit a plateau almost immediately. So I think the avoidance of strain is the biggest mistake people make in trying to get better.

In terms of education, another way of saying this is that learning, with an eye towards mastery, is not always fun. It requires hard work and going beyond one’s comfort zone.

This is something I’ve written about before in relation to constructivism and the current edu babble about digital natives and 21st century skills. Teachers are under great pressure to magically instill mastery of rigorous academic content in students who may lack essential foundational skills, or don’t yet see any value in education. In general conversations about public education, we all too often infantilize students to the point of subtracting any burden for learning from their shoulders, thereby placing the burden entire on that of their parents or teachers when they fail.

The reality is that in order to go beyond superficial exposure to knowledge and edge towards applicable mastery, students must work hard. And they must not merely work hard in the confines of the classroom, but put in work on their own time.

A simple example of this is mastery of the utterly essential yet hugely complex ability to read. Students might read while in school, but some consider reading a burdensome task that they are unwilling to engage in when not “forced” to. Instead, they opt for activities that require little mental strain, such as Facebook, button mashing video games, facile Hollywood movies, and TV sitcoms. But to become more than a barely proficient reader, in order to become a masterful reader, with an understanding of the world beyond one’s own neighborhood, one must read constantly, one must devour books, sit focused for hours in place, immersed in the struggle with a narrative or informational structure that will, over time and across multiple books, cumulatively, broaden and challenge complacent interpretations and shallow stereotypes of the world.

A great teacher is a gateway to such expansion and challenge, but they cannot substitute for the effort and work which must ultimately come from the student themselves. There is no mastery without hard work.

Right now in the edu sphere there is much talk of instilling “grit” and providing students with the opportunity to learn to “fail.” Indeed. Yet parallel to this conversation, there hovers a mirage of innovative edtech gamification: this idea that if we design the perfect learning experience, students will learn without even knowing that they are learning. They will be fooled by gadgetry and wonder into learning, despite themselves.

Yet all that glitters is not gold. There is only one path to knowledge and mastery — and that is through hard work.

Disagree with me? Great! Provide your rebuttal in the comments, or write your own blog post and post the link! I’m always game for a good debate.

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