In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve explores the mastery curve in the context of teaching.
Read Jeroen De Flander’s article here.
Read the Hargraves and Fullan article here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:14 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:41 A mastery curve for teaching. I recently came across a fascinating article called “How to be Great” and it’s written by Jeroen de Flander, the author of the Art of Performance. In the lead-in to this podcast, I’ve linked a interview with de Flander that you’d likely find interesting. 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, a communicator, a educator. But de Flander 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?” The gist of the de Flander’s work in this article and in his book is on showing us what he calls the mastery curve and the ability for all of us to reach that mastery level should we determine to do so.
Steve: 02:22 He starts with three pretty powerful examples that certainly grabbed my attention. The first one is he looks at Mozart as well as Frank Sinatra as two people who have what’s known as absolute pitch. And their musical abilities were believed to be connected to that gift or talent. But he then identifies a researcher who set out with 24 infants and their families who did a 15 minute a day practice activity that ended up with 22 of the 24 students – children, developing absolute pitch. He shares another example of a researcher who prior to being married, declared that his children would be chess masters. And after marrying and having three daughters, all three of the daughters went on to be international chess champions, including one daughter who was the top ranked female chess player for over 26 years having beaten many of the top males during that timeframe.
Steve: 03:55 The third example he gave was a story of a gentleman named 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. And he sent out a training program that led to him being on the PGA tour. De Flander identifies three critical elements that came out of the stories I just listed and hundreds more that he explored. And the three items are one, passion and purpose. A desire, an interest to achieve the mastery that that one is set. Two, deep practice. And deep practice is defined as the difficult challenging practice. And number three, persistence. The willingness to continue during those difficult practice times. De Flander describes the journey to greatness as following what he calls a mastery curve. And on the mastery curve you work through four skill levels.
Steve: 05:30 The first one he identified as novice, the second amateur, the third expert, and the fourth path finder. As I read through his article and explored these four areas on this mastery curve, it struck me that there were great correlations to teaching. He describes in the novice phase, that 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. And as soon as I read that, I thought about the large numbers of beginning teachers who leave the field during their first five years and pondering if what they’re finding is that they aren’t getting the passion and the purpose from the way that the beginning teacher is working within that environment. Maybe due to lack of support, to have enough success in order to capture the passion.
Steve: 06:55 But I’m also thinking that 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 their real passion that’s necessary for deep practice isn’t present. The second stage on his mastery curve, he calls amateur. And he describes that at this stage, practice takes up a large part of our agenda. And that 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.
Steve: 08:22 To advance beyond the amateur stage, he suggests, we need to push ourselves. He calls the third stage, the expert stage. And at this spot, other people identify your talent and your ability. They probably identify your passion. But if one wants to go be on this place, they have to continue a focus on deep practice, continually pushing themselves to achieve something they hadn’t yet achieved. And the fourth stage that he identifies is called path finder. At this stage, a person has honed their skills, personalized them, they have their own signature strengths. To continue to move forward, they now have to innovate and open new avenues for others as well. De Flander suggests that 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 around the concept of how many educators get left at the amateur level because we lack the professional development, the professional learning communities, the design of professional growth plans that push for the development of that expertise, which is generated only by that deep practice.
Steve: 10:08 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. As I was thinking that through, I was reminded of writing that had been done earlier by Andy Hargraves and Michael Fullan in they’re “Exploring the Power of Professional Capital.” I have also linked to their article in the lead into this podcast. Fullan and Hargraves talk about three career stages of teachers. The first one being teachers early in their career during those first three years. They describe most teachers during that time as enthusiastic, committed and dedicated, but on the average, less competent with lots to learn. They describe teachers in the later years of their career was identified as 22 years and onwards. And they see that those teachers on an average are declining in commitment. They suggest it can have lots to do with many things such as their lives, aging parents, experiences with change, principals turnover, et cetera.
Steve: 11:39 And their capabilities at this point can often be all over the map. The third group that they describe are those teachers in mid career range. Those are folks that would range from four to five years through 20 years of teaching experience. On average, they are most committed and capable. I’d like to read a quote from their article concerning the mid career range group. “Their time in teaching adds up to about 10,000 hours, which is the time that Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers tells us as how long it takes in any profession to become the equivalent of an orchestra class as a musician. 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?
Steve: 12:45 Or do we want to keep developing to wire in all the skills and stretch the capacities so that educators reach that moment where they are in the zone where they can improvise with a range of strategies effortlessly? If so, it takes most teachers and investment of around 10,000 hours to get to that point.” In reading de Flander, he discusses that Gladwell misses a point on the 10,000 hours. The continuous practice of 10,000 hours isn’t going to develop that expertise level. It’s going to take the focus on that deep practice, that stretching practice. Hargraves and Fullan do write, “we need to focus more on the teachers in the middle and to keep challenging them and stretching them.” de Flander writes, “we can nurture our interest and become truly passionate. We can find a community to serve and do meaningful work. We can train like the best and grow our skillset beyond anything we ever thought possible. And when we get stuck, we can access our energizers whenever we need them. It’s no easy ride. The journey to the top of the mastery curve is steep and full of unexpected twists and turns. But the evidence is also great news. Greatness is available to all of us. We can all travel the mastery curve.”
Steve: 14:34 I believe thinking about teaching an educator mastery should be an element for all of us as school leaders to be considering. What is it that we take on as school leaders? 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 and to create great learning opportunities for our students, because we’ve created those great learning opportunities for the educators? I’m sure that one of the key elements is for school leaders to keep working on their own mastery curve. I look forward to joining you there. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 15:58 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.