Tuesday, December 15, 2009



I am sorry to have to do it but this post is not a informative, instructional post. It is a rant. If you are here to learn how to use the internet and technology, good. But ignore this post. If you are interested in reading the opinion of somebody who is completely and utterly right then read on. 

Definition of Mastery

great skillfulness and knowledge of some subject or activity

Very great skill or knowledge
(World Book Dictionary)

Possession or display of great skill or knowledge
(Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary)

Great skill, expert knowledge
(Gage Canadian Dictionary)

Can do the skill, twice.
(the standard teacher's definition)

Anybody see a problem?  As teachers we throw the word mastery around like a dirty dishrag at a community supper.  "Yes, they have mastered the skill."  Has the student?  Or can they merely do the skill (at least we have seen them do it - twice if we are good teachers).  We use the term way too loosely.  Is this just another symptom in our declining expectations?  Master means that they have amazing skill and or knowledge.  Wayne Gretzky mastered hockey.  Arnold Palmer mastered golf.  Steven Spielberg  mastered moviemaking.  A concert soloist has mastered their music.  Any olympic athlete has mastered their sport.  Many of my university professors mastered their content area (some even learned how to teach it).

Malcom Gladwell talks about mastery in his book Outliers.  "10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness."  That is how long it takes to truly achieve mastery.  In studies that ranged from musicians, to professional hockey players, to amazing computer programmers, the common factor was that they ALL worked for roughly 10,000 hours before becoming very good, before achieving mastery.  Skill is not what made them great - skill and working much, much harder than everyone else made them masters.

And here we go as teachers using the word.  We have watered it down and ruined it.  I don't even want to say it again.  It has become meaningless.  How many of our students have spent those kind of hours on any skill we teach them?  A student with perfect attendance would take until grade 11 to reach 10,000 hours of school (not counting homework).  Without a heck of a lot of homework do you really think they can achieve the M-word in any subject area?  

I have already heard the argument "But they have achieved mastery for their level."  (Yes I have gone off on this rant before.)  Really?  Have they?  Are they great?  Are they showing expert knowledge?  Or can they merely do it consistently.  I can drive down the road and consistently stay between the ditches.  Have I mastered driving?  No, I am merely good enough.  

And when has good enough ever been good enough?

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