Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Information - Skills - Mastery

I was chatting with @banana29 about that learning thing on the weekend. She'd been wrestling with the idea of skills based learning, ultimately finding it too limiting in describing what we're actually aiming for in education.

After we ruminated for a few minutes, we came up with the idea of Mastery. We don't teach students information, or even skills, but what we look for ultimately is mastery (something more encompassing and complex than knowledge or simple skills development).

This bounced me back to a conversation I'd had the other week at a heads PD on assessment. The teacher I was chatting with had been heavily involved with the Hockey Canada coaching program. While in it, they were told that in order for a player to have gained a mastery of the game, they need to have put ten thousand hours into to it. While talking to him, we brought up Wayne Gretzky. I saw an interview with his Dad, Walter, back in the day. The interviewer was saying how Wayne was a natural and Walter just shook his head and laughed. He then told the story of Wayne's childhood. He'd get up, and go play hockey before school, he'd play hockey on recess and at lunch, he'd come home and... play hockey. In the winter he averaged 4-6 hours a day on the backyard rink; in the summer he played ball hockey. Wayne Gretzky wasn't a natural, he was a master, who'd put the hours in and learned (and earned) his mastery.

Back to the skills talk: the idea of skills is inherently limited. A skill is defined by its limitations; it's one of the ways we're able to focus on them and perfect them. To take the hockey metaphor again, skating is a skill, stick handling is a skill, shooting is a skill. These and many others work in complex ways to develop something that relies on them and many other indirect and seemingly esoteric skills and knowledge to create an encompassing and complete mastery.

Perhaps this is that missing piece everyone seems to be looking for in education. We focus on knowledge and information, we focus on skills development, but we never look for mastery, or encourage it in all its esoteric forms. Mastery training can get awfully abtruse too, bizarre even. I once saw the Detroit Red Wings playing hackey sack before a playoff game; masters getting Zen while warming up their hand/foot/eye coordination, teamwork and focus? or guys screwing around?

Mastery assumes a level of professionalism and focus that isn't in question. We have trouble doing that in PD, let alone with students. If we can't trust teachers to apply themselves to their professional development in a self directed, meaningful way (something a master will do no matter what), the idea of students doing it approaches absurdity. Perhaps mastery is more than we can expect from the education system.

Another problem in elementary and secondary education (it happens in post secondary) is being able to focus on a specific field in order to develop mastery. In Ontario, this is changing now with High Skills Specialists and other focuses beyond the bland, traditional subject haze that students have been dragged through.

The problems don't end there. In a system that prides itself on segmentation and order, mastery becomes a slippery concept that doesn't fit well into curriculum documents, class bells, mid term reports and percentage grades. Mastery leaves all of that nonsense behind, the master becomes an embodiment of their discipline.

That 'nonsense' is vital to an apprentice though. Without structure, and planned practice that develops the knowledge and skills needed, someone working toward mastery will take much longer to embody their expertise. Perhaps the fact that mastery isn't mentioned, or even understood to be the point of the educational process, is where we run into trouble. Structure is vital to learning, but it seems empty and pointless if there isn't an ultimate goal beyond the skills and knowledge happening right in front of you. The student being drilled on grammar or working to develop their sentence structure has no sense of what it is they are pursuing: the mastery of a writer. If they aren't pursuing mastery, they are spending all of their time getting drilled in stick handling, passing and shooting and never getting to play a hockey game.

The problem there might be that the masters teaching aren't really masters themselves, but rather experts in running drills and practicing. It's not always easy to convince a master to teach their discipline to the unwashed masses, they tend to want to pick and choose their apprentices, looking for people who demonstrate the kind of personalities and inherent abilities that will improve chances of success. Spending time and energy on an unworthy apprentice is exhausting and wasteful.

Ultimately, mastery, or even the striving for it, ends up seeming exclusionary, but training with no purpose creates skills and knowledge without context, which is very hard to explain or justify.

Last year I had a student who earned a 46% in grade eleven college level English. He thanked me profusely for 'giving' him a 50% and a pass. I told him it was no favour, moving him to grade 12 was going to be very difficult for him. His response was, "it's ok, I just didn't try this year, I'll try next year and get the B average I need for college."

He didn't get that 70%, in fact, he dropped the course on his first go around and is now at a loss on what to do. His problem wasn't effort, his problem was that he couldn't spell, his grammar was atrocious, I'd seen grade 9s with better vocabulary and he had virtually no understanding of sentence or paragraph structure. He could try as hard as he wanted, but his complete lack of a workable foundation in English is where the real problem lay.

In a system that feels to many students like random, fractured, pointless skills development with wads of knowledge dumped on top, the idea that they need to be developing toward something other than their next summative assessment is foreign. It's foreign for many of their teachers too.