Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mastering is more than expecting the best

In his article Fostering Mastery (Huffington Post, October 24,) Terry Newell discusses the delight of seeing students master a difficult skill, in particular a pianist.
As teachers we are expected to help students do their very best in their work, but sometime a student's very best would be real mastery of a subject or skill. In the article he points out that the only areas school place emphasis on mastery is where there are competitions, in sports, music, dance, or whatever - all of which are after school activities.
Of course there are many adults who do their day job just to be able to support their passion, which they aim to master, like an acquaintance who participates in very high stakes gambling, which I guess he figures he has mastered. Others use the subjects they work mastering in their day jobs, often as free-lancers. This could be professional photographers, IT developers, or even those lucky athletes who can make it as professionals.
In order to master something you have to be consumed by it. You practice hours on end, study the skills of others, read books, attend conferences or meets, compete with others in various ways. But that doesn't leave time for school work! Both my brother and my son got consumed by technology which competed with schoolwork and dropped out - although they "dropped in" again when they discovered a way to study their passion without the encumbrance of all the rest!
But life needs mastery in more ways than highly visible competitive activities. When I was teaching English and German in Denmark, I kept reminding my students that they needed to really master the languages, so that they could use them in their careers as fluently and precisely as possible. Many of the students had been abroad and understood why almost right can cause comprehension difficulties. They were motivated to work with their essays and practice conversation so that they would someday be praised for their fluency. That was more important than the grade I gave them (which, of course, was good anyway!)
As math teachers we have to encourage our students to master math. Any deviations from accurate math could cause serious problems in life (by not calculating one's financial situation well enough) or in a career - just think of what would happen if an engineer did imprecise calculations on a bridge, car, or space explorer!
Journalists have to master their skills of research and persuasion.
Is there a way we can motivated students to mastery in our classes?
I once had a mentor teacher who was inspired by words from an Olympic swimmer, about how he mastered his swimming techniques through many hours of drill. Unfortunately the teacher assumed that this could be applied to math students. He missed the most important part of the swimmer's message: motivation. Students have to be motivated to excellence, to mastery. Then they might be interested in drill. But I think they have to figure out for themselves in some way what they will drill. It doesn't help that a teacher says, "this is how you do it, now go drill it for an hour." Teenagers will often do the exact opposite of what you tell them to do, or at least do it unwillingly. We have to lead them to where they want to master the subject on their own with our support and guidance where they need it. There are many things they can figure out on their own. Sometimes they need encouragement to research the particulars they need, so we have to help them learn to be effective researchers, but there are also times when our own knowledge and experience is what they need, and they may be motivated to accept it, if we learn to present it at the right moment.
Let our job be encouraging mastery. Our job is motivation, not dishing out facts, procedures and drills!

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