|Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell|
What if We Maximized our Talent?
Part II in a Series on Empowerment and Potential
Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.
In the August “Extra Credit” article I asked, “What if we focus on what is right”? In September, I asked, “What if we maximized our talent?” For October’s, we will dive deeper into the idea of maximizing our talent by exploring the concept of mastery.
What is Ultimate Power?
According to Robert Greene in his book “Mastery,” ultimate power is becoming a true master. If knowledge is power, mastery is ultimate power.
A “master,” according to Greene, has obtained transformational knowledge or skills. In wonderful detail, he chronicles how Einstein, Darwin, da Vinci, Franklin and numerous others exemplify the many paths to mastery. But Greene’s main message, and the main point of this article, is that the path to mastery is within reach for all of us.
How Does Mastery Happen?
First, look inward.
Although “masters” often get external acknowledgment, accolades and perhaps even boatloads of money, the real power and joy of mastery is within. Human beings have evolved to be hyper-dependent on purpose. We seek and thrive on accomplishment.
Purpose clarifies and self-esteem magnifies as mastery grows. Although human beings have had an intuitive understanding of this for eons, it is now commonly understood through imaging studies that our brains light up like Christmas trees when we experience accomplishment.
One may think that because mastery takes a lot of time and because the brain of the developing child is incredibly malleable, one must determine their path early in life to obtain mastery. Although this happens, I believe more people have been driven off the path of mastery because they travelled down a particular path too far, too early.
It is precisely because mastery takes years that people must look inward for the strength to pursue it. We must capitalize on intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation.
In the long term, the most powerful motivation is always internal. People must have the maturity of mind to believe that the decision is truly theirs and that all options have been explored.
Second, learn from others.
When you are internally motivated, you are then primed to learn from others. Greene explains in great detail how apprenticeship and mentoring have been essential for history’s greatest masters.
These are terms not typically used for young people, but for the purpose of this article, teachers, instructors and coaches can be substituted. The message from Greene is that learners seek out, connect with and absorb the teachings of masters.
Third, remember the soft skills.
Mastery does not occur in a social vacuum. It’s important to have social skills to reach mastery. Ineffectively dealing with inevitable social challenges will detract from the time and energy you can devote to mastery.
Greene presents the example of Temple Grandin. Grandin is well known for revolutionizing the world of animal science and behavior, especially as it applies to how animals are treated on the journey to the processing plant.
Her techniques and designs have created a much more humane process for the animals. It is well documented that her success had much to do with her ability to empathize and see the world from the perspective of the animals.
Her autism seemed to augment her gifts. Her autism, despite her brilliance, also made it difficult to win over people to her ideas. She had difficulty when presenting and implementing her brilliant ideas and often despite how much sense she was making, she lost contracts and alienated those she was trying to convince.
Greene describes how Temple Grandin had to work harder on how to present her ideas and work with people, than on the actual revolutionary ideas themselves.
Fourth, go away for a while.
Perhaps ironically, the fourth step to mastery is to take a break. This should happen after one has become very proficient in an area, and when the person takes the break he/she should explore related fields.
A Steve Jobs anecdote may provide a good example.
I remember watching his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. At one point he spoke of the most important classes he took in college (from which he did not graduate). You might think they would be computer/coding classes but they were actually graphic design classes.
From these classes, the origins of the Apple design philosophy emerged, forever changing the possibilities of personal computing.
Fifth, come back.
In the final stage of mastery, you put it all together and transform who you are and what you do.
Sticking with Steve Jobs, it is well known that he was asked to leave Apple in 1985, basically for being a jerk. By the time Apple rehired him in 1997, the company was going downhill (fast).
Jobs came back, and the rest is history. But it is also clear from history that Jobs had continued to grow in his 12-year absence. Although he was still brilliant and a visionary, he was changed.
For example, he was better able to see people as they are.
What can schools do?
There is a curricular approach called “Mastery Learning.”
Formally proposed by Benjamin S. Bloom in 1968, Mastery Learning is based on the premise that students will achieve a high level of understanding in a given domain if they are given enough time to learn the material. Mastery Learning is contrary to the predominant “normal curve” approach, which expects that only a small number of students will master (i.e., receive a very high grade) in a subject area.
In the traditional learning environment, all students are given the same instruction and the same amount of time to master the material. A mastery learning approach accepts that learners vary in the amount of time it takes to learn.
In such environments, the onus is squarely on the instructor to employ instructional strategies so that a wider range of learners master the content.
Thus, with Mastery Learning, knowledge gaps among learners shrink.
Mastery Learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery before moving on. If the learner does not achieve mastery, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information, then tested again.
This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery. Mastery Learning approaches propose that if each learner were to receive optimal instruction and as much learning time as they require, then a majority of students could be expected to attain mastery.
Mastery Learning sounds rather utopian, so why is it not used more frequently?
First, to be blunt, many think that it would not be fair to give learners the same grade, when it takes some of them longer to get to a mastery level of understanding.
Second, major aspects of our educational system would have to be re-thought for Mastery Learning to work. For example, the typical number of students in most classrooms around the country make this individualized approach very challenging, even for the best teachers in the best districts.
What can we do as parents and teachers to promote mastery?
First and foremost, create an environment in which children love what they do. If this is done, motivation is on your side.
As teachers and parents know, motivation is more than half the battle. Based on my experience as an educator and parent, creating such an environment requires what I call “subtle structure.”
You want to balance choices and opportunity with some degree of commitment. For my children, a common line of thinking I have used goes something like, “you will do something, you will try, we will support you 100 percent, but if after all that you do not like it, we will find something else.”
For my students, I find as many ways as possible to offer variety in my instruction and in how the students are assessed. Also, online learning environments such as Khan Academy allow parents, teachers and students to pursue learning in an area of interest and at their own pace, in keeping with the basic tenets of mastery.
Empowerment through mastery is within the grasp of all of us, and it has incalculable side benefits. Through mastery, students grow in self-esteem and confidence, pursue new interests and influence others in positive ways — and the cycle repeats and builds on itself.
Greene, R. (2012). “Mastery.” USA: Viking Penguin
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.
Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.