Our Trinity, #2: Mastery

Ours can be a school of mastery.

Let's assume that we succeed in our crazy goal of helping students fall in love with many (or most) of the subjects they study — that by middle school our students are entering adolescence convinced that history, biology, math, astronomy, and so are are desperately interesting. What next?

I suggest: we can help them learn precisely how to excel at any task they set themselves to.

Here, we can get help from science. Psychologists have hacked talent, and the world is only beginning to wake up to it. Most classrooms, driven by a century of inertia, still work off the assumption that kids who lack native skill in a subject (math, for example, or writing) probably won't be able to get more than passable in it. (I've found this idea almost universally held, though only rarely expressed.)

Delightfully, this is wrong. False. Mis-conceived.

The higher realms of performance, the psychologists tell us, are open to us all.

That is: Anyone can excel at math. Anyone can draw realistically, and beautifully. Anyone can write lucidly. And so on, and so on.

What's needed isn't just practice — flashbacks to the "10,000-hours rule" — but a certain type of practice, done (yes) repeatedly over a long period of time. And psychologists have been uncovering what that type of practice (dubbed "deliberate practice") looks like.

To engage in deliberate practice is to target a specific goal, and to measure one's progress toward it. It's to constantly adjust the difficulty level of a challenge, so that one is always working at the full extent of one's abilities. It's to break down complex routines into simple tasks, perfect those simple tasks, and then re-assemble them into their (now perfected) complex routines.

(For a very helpful distillation of deliberate practice that expands on what I've just written, check out this blog post.)

Deliberate practice is painful. But it works wonders. And anyone — with certain commonsense limits — can use it to become impressively better in any domain.

No one has devised a school built on deliberate practice. No one (so far as I know) has done a from-the-roots-up rethinking of what schooling could look like if talent can be built by anyone.

We can do that.

And we can go further than deliberate practice — we can cultivate a culture that values excellence and self-overcoming. And we can do this in a number of different ways. In our history curricula, we can highlight brilliant inventors, crafty leaders, and ingenious artists. In our assemblies, we can laud students who have struggled the most. Perhaps we'll find it good to group students into different houses (I'm imagining Hogwarts here) based on how they best approach talent acquisition — those who benefit from competition in one house, and those who benefit from a non-competitive environment in another.

I've been speaking of the sub-set of cognitive psychology called "expertise studies," but we can also adopt some of the most helpful discoveries of cognitive psychology more generally. Cognitive psychologists, for example, have decisively answered the question of how we can remember what we learn forever. They've worked out useful insights into how creativity functions — how people generate new ideas and solutions. All of these, too, can be brought into our curriculum.

I've focused here on how we can do this all in middle school, but certain aspects of it should start in grade school — for example, we should craft our math curriculum with a full knowledge of deliberate practice, so kids at the very least aren't wasting their time on unchallenging problems, or forgetting what they've worked hard to learn. Before we teach them how to acquire expertise, we should build some aspects of it into everything they do.

A few provisos to what I've just written:

  1. None of this means, by the way, that we should take an intensive, Tiger-Mom / Korean-prep-school-esque approach to any aspect of our school. I'm allergic to these. I think they're (typically) bad places to raise humans. We should aim for a school culture that exalts excellence, and encourages students (and teachers!) to pursue it. But coerced practice is not (typically) useful practice. And such forcefulness can threaten to poison everything else.
  2. I've been speaking too blithely here — I understand (everyone understands, I think) that not literally everyone is able to, for example, excel at drawing, or writing, or math. People with significant neurological damage, for example — or people with a deep, learned aversion to a certain subject. (I'm reminded of the Jack Handy quip: “To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.” Such a person would have a very difficult time excelling at clown school.)
  3. I want to be sure that this "virtually anyone can develop mad skills" isn't confused with the "blank slate" hypothesis — the idea that everyone is born with a perfectly equal predisposition to develop talent. I once believed that, but psychologists tell us it's wrong. Some kids really are born with a higher or lower propensity to learning math (or writing, or art, or whatever). But the beautiful thing is that this isn't determinative: a student who doesn't have a predisposition toward learning to do math really can excel at it, with the right sort of practice.

Finally, I think there are some real-world implications to all of this. In my caffeine-fueled dreams, I nurture hopes that this could be a school to change the world. Well, if we really can hack talent in practice (the way that psychologists have hacked talent in theory), that is something the world needs.

Marvin Zonis, the University of Chicago professor of global economics, wrote:

The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital [skills and talents]. The countries that get that right, the companies that understand how to mobilize and apply that human capital, and the schools that produce it...will be the big winners of our age.

Again, this is something the world needs. And it's something that we can provide.

A final question: I'm not sure about the word "mastery" to carry all this meaning. I've also been kicking around some other choices: excellence, expertise, genius, and talent. Any thoughts, y'all?

(Next up: wisdom.)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA