A Mastery Curve for Teaching | Educator Mastery | Steve Barkley

A Mastery Curve for Teaching

learn, practice, improveI recently came across a fascinating article called “How to be Great” (Business Life, November 2019) written by Jeroen de Flander, the author of The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness. In the article, de Flander writes, “We are all in awe when we discover the work of masters.” (And I have to say for me that’s true. Whenever I’m in the presence of a master teacher, communicator, or educator, I am in awe.) He continues, “…but if we’re not careful, their mastery can discourage us. Why would we try our best if the talent we’re born with is the ultimate predictor of our success?”

De Flanders shares powerful examples to illustrate the value of going for greatness:

  • Mozart as well as Frank Sinatra are two people who have what’s known as absolute pitch. Their musical abilities were believed to be connected to that unique gift or talent. However, a researcher who worked with 24 infants and their families who did a 15 minute a day practice activity, ended up with 22 of the 24 children, developing absolute pitch.
  • Another example was a researcher who prior to being married, declared that his children would be chess masters. After marrying and having three daughters, all three went on to be international chess champions, including one who was the top ranked female chess player for over 26 years, having beaten many of the top males during that timeframe.
  • Don McLaughlin, who at age 30, having never played a full 18 holes of golf decided that he wanted to become a golfer at the PGA tour level. He set out a training program that led to him being on the PGA tour.

Three critical elements are uncovered from these examples:

  1. Passion and purpose. A desire, an interest to achieve the mastery that that one has set.
  2. Deep practice. Defined as difficult challenging practice.
  3. Persistence. The willingness to continue during those difficult practice times.

De Flander describes the journey to greatness as following a four -level mastery curve: novice, amateur, expert, pathfinder.

de Flander Mastery Curve

Jeroen De Flander’s Mastery Curve (Source: The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness)

How Each Stage Connects to Teacher Development

De Flander suggests that in the novice phase, you get engaged because something triggered your interest and that if you aren’t constantly triggered as you take part in the activity, you will drop out. As I read that, I thought about the large numbers of beginning teachers who leave the field during their first five years. Are they not finding passion and purpose within the environment? Maybe due to lack of support, they experience too little success to build passion. Or a person may have come into the field with an insufficient opportunity to experience teaching and finds out only in those first couple of years that the real passion, that’s necessary for deep practice, isn’t present.

The second stage on the mastery curve is amateur. At this stage, practice takes up a large part of our agenda. Progress at this stage may be quite fast, especially with the help of a coach or teacher. The thinking is that if one keeps practicing, the improvement will continue. But research identifies that there’s a certain spot at which our progress plateaus and that continuing to practice the same thing does not lead to improvement. In other words, more time spent in practice may make it easier to achieve the level that you’re at, but it doesn’t take you to the next level. To advance beyond the amateur stage, he suggests, we need to push ourselves.

The third stage is the expert stage. At this spot, other people identify your talent and your ability. They probably identify your passion. If one wants to be in this place, a continued a focus on deep practice, continually pushing oneself to achieve something you hadn’t yet achieved is required.

Pathfinder is the fourth stage. Here a person has honed their skills, personalized them, they have their own signature strengths. To continue to move forward, they now must innovate and open new avenues for others as well. At this level, your purpose comes into play. You want to become the best that you can and leave a legacy in your field.

As I was processing de Flander’s article, I pondered, “How many educators get left at the amateur level?” Do we lack the professional development, the professional learning communities, and the design of professional growth plans that push for the development of experts, which is generated only by deep practice? Teachers may get caught up in getting better at achieving the goals that they are currently reaching, but not stretching, being driven by a deeper, richer set of goals.
Andy Hargraves and Michael Fullan state this need in an article, “The Power of Professional Capital.”

“If you want to play in the pub on a Saturday night, it will take you about 4,000 hours, which is about the equivalent of three years of teaching. In teaching, do we want to create teachers who are good enough to play in the pub on a Saturday night, with three years or so of experience? Or do we want to keep developing, to wire in all the skills and stretch the capacities, so educators reach that moment where they’re in the zone, where they can improvise with a range of strategies effortlessly?”

I believe building educator mastery should be a major component of school leadership. How do we promote, encourage, and support the development of passion and purpose? How do we prepare people for deep practice? How do we become the energizers of teachers engaged in deep practice and how do we build and support the networks that will provide for the necessary persistence to reach mastery? To create great learning opportunities for our students, we must create great learning opportunities for educators? I’m sure that one of the key elements is for school leaders to keep working on their own mastery curve.

For more on educator mastery, you can listen to my podcast A Mastery Curve for Teaching.

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