Mastery vs Speed

Thursday 28 Mar

David Geurin is a US educationalist, father of four, principal, and author of Future Driven. He writes, ‘Learning should involve consuming AND creating. It’s important to learn new content (consuming) and do something with it (creating).’ He unpacks this further by explaining that to consolidate learning – for learning to stick – students must take information, ideas and understanding, and remix them to create something new.

Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, was highly regarded for his work in child development. Vygotsky is quoted as saying, ‘It must not be forgotten that the basic law of children’s creativity is that its value lies not in its results, not in the product of the creation, but in the process itself. It is not important what children create, but that they do create, that they exercise and implement their creative imagination.’

Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, was also highly regarded for his work in child development. Piaget is quoted as saying, ‘Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time that we try to teach them too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.’

Learning requires doing. It requires agency and connection, both emotional and physical. The classic example is that of a toddler learning to walk. Even if a toddler was able to read a textbook or listen to a lecture about walking, this would not result in the child physically putting one foot in front of the other. To learn to walk, the toddler must ‘do’. The same can be said for most anything: for reading, swimming, riding a bike, painting, playing a musical instrument, driving a car, using binoculars, differential calculus. Encouragement from the sidelines can be an effective motivator, but essentially it’s in the ‘doing’ that the learning takes place.

This leads to the question: Do we truly appreciate the time required for exploration and doing, in order to spark learning?

There is a common and damaging misconception that a quick learner is an authentic learner. In reality, when students develop a skill or understand content quickly, it is not indicative of great teaching or high levels of learning. Rather, it is a sign that the work is not challenging enough. Speed is rarely a measure of authentic learning but is usually a demonstration of something already known.

We live in a fast-paced world that often values speed at the expense of mastery. We have shifted away from authentic skill development and deep understanding of content, to a scramble for sheer volume. We wear busyness, speed and volume as a badge of honour. Quantity over quality. We think that, because classroom content has been covered, it has been learnt. We jump from activity to activity, rarely valuing ‘flow’. That is, rarely valuing the time required to ‘get in the zone’ and to ‘stay in the zone’. What is the point of racing forward if mastery has not been achieved?

I’m inspired by American entrepreneur and founder of Khan Academy, Sal Kahn. Khan acutely understands education and is one of the original driving forces behind personalised learning. In his 2015 Ted Talk, he speaks about teaching for mastery. In this Ted Talk, Khan also speaks about failing to learn, exercising agency, and the importance of grit – it’s just 10 minutes, but it really does pack a gentle punch! I commend it to you.

- Jane Mueller, Principal