On Mastery

No research today, just some general thoughts on something that is sorely lacking in contemporary educational discourse. The beauty of repetition, working through boredom and achieving mastery. Please forgive the anecdote and speculation. I do it from time to time.

Anyone who has ever performed at a high level, be it music, or sports, or the arts or whatever will tell you that one of the hardest things is working through the boredom. That’s right, boredom. Even when you absolutely adore what you do, there are times when it seems that practicing is the last activity you can imagine engaging in. And guess what? Those that have achieved high levels go ahead and practice anyways.

The incredible American sleight-of-hand magician Al Schneider has some insightful things to say about mastering a new technique:

  1. Learn a new move slowly and with confusion.
  2. With attention the move can be done well.
  3. While repeating the move, bungles will occur more and more.
  4. Great frustration and boredom is experienced in doing the move.
  5. Eventually doing the move is fun and you don’t want to stop.

I think Schneider is really on to something here. As a learner and as a teacher and coach, I have felt this process and I’ve seen students go through it. It’s hard to make yourself get past step #2 and into step #3. What’s worse, teachers have a hard time convincing themselves that their students need to move to #3, and almost always stop the process here. And this is a pity.

You see, teachers are generally a kindly lot. They like kids and they want the kids to learn and to be happy. And when kids are unhappy, teachers usually take that as a sign that either the kids not interested/capable, or that the teacher is pushing too hard. And they stop. Why should they do 30 similar math problems, asks the teacher, when they get the idea after 2 or 3? And therein lies the problem. Students might get the idea after 2 or three problems, but they have not come close to mastering the ideas and skills behind it. Not even after 20 times.

If Schneider is right, after becoming comfortable with the technique (or procedure or whatever) errors begin to increase rather than decrease. It’s not clear why this is so, but it fits my experience as well. Probably what is happening is that as you gain some ascendency over the technical details, your attention begins to let go, and small errors creep in. This is frustrating, as you know that you understand what you are doing, and you shouldn’t make these mistakes. Often at this point, you become frustrated with yourself. If you have the strength to work through the frustration, boredom often sets in. After all, it feels like you are making no progress. And if you see it through, suddenly as if by magic, the errors drop to nearly zero and you can perform the task smoothly and perfectly, and it’s weirdly fun to do it, even though it requires almost no effort.

Sadly, our school curricula don’t see it this way. We cram one technique and tidbit of knowledge after another into children, guaranteeing that they never get past Schneider’s stage #2. Worse yet, many can’t even complete state #2. As the old criticism goes, contemporary curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is not hard to see why so many students have lost interest in school. They are being asked to perform modest tasks, and are not even permitted the time and repetition to master them before they are displaced for other, often unrelated, modest tasks.

Take a bit of time to watch professional athletes practice. The bulk of their time is in repeated drill on things they’ve mastered years ago. Find a professional musician, and ask her how much time she spends playing scales and other technical material every day. And then ask yourself how long it should take a child to master basic arithmetic.

My challenge to teachers and to curriculum writers is this. Are you willing to make time and space for your students to experience the satisfaction and pleasure that comes with mastery?

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