Based on the book ‘Mastery’ by Robert Greene.
By Bruce Hammonds
I listened to an interview on National Radio with Robert Greene about his book Mastery and felt inspired to acquire his book.
Developing an education system premised on developing the talents and gifts of all students has always been my vision. Unfortunately schooling has been more about standardisation and conformity – sorting and grading of students. National Standards with its emphasis on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other areas of endeavour, is the most recent iteration of this standardised approach.
The alternative is an emphasis on personalisation of learning; an education premised on the centrality of developing student creativity - building on the default way of learning innate in all learners.
Although there have been individual teachers who have developed creative classroomsmost classrooms could be classified as benign environments where students achieve success by achieving teacher determined objectives.
Robert Greene’s fascinating book, by using examples of masters past and present, illustrates vital lessons about how teachers could develop their classrooms as true creative learning communities. The power he outlines is the process that leads to mastery – one that is available to all of us.
Essentially in whenever we are learning something new at the beginning we are outsiders and the process of achieving mastery seems confusing as we realise how much there is to learn. Many people, living in a world of instant gratification, give up at this point.
If we get past such feelings, and by following the lead of others, by observing, by practice and effort we gain basic skills and in turn gain some success and gain in confidence. As time goes by mastery is developed.
There are three stages in this process. The first is apprenticeship where we are outsiders, watching and learning. The second stage, through much practice and immersion we gain a more comprehensive understanding and in the third we internalise what has been learnt and can apply ourselves intuitively. We have moved from novice to relative expertise.
We all had this intuitive spontaneous way of learning when we were young but it is generally drummed out of us by an overload of information, by a conformist education system, and by the belief that only a few geniuses achieve mastery and that these people have ‘natural talent’ not available to the rest of us
Greene’s thesis is that mastery is a latent power in all of us and that we can reverse bad learning habits and recover from misconceptions about our ability to learn.
Greene shares fascinating insights from a number of ‘talented’ people to show that their success was down to a process we can all access. The beginning of success is an early identification of areas of interest, an interest that allows them to stand the pain of practice. Successful people rely on desire, persistence and practice rather than reasoning power.
Too many of us simply don’t try. The less we attempt the less chance of failure. It is important to understand that other people’s success is due to their actions not genetics and privilege.
As teachers we need to focus on what it is that individual students are interested in. It was an interest in nature that drove Darwin, an obsession with observing that drove Leonardo da Vinci and an interest in magnetic force as a five year old that drove Einstein – Darwin , Einstein and da Vinci becameobsessed with the search and the process of creating. The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum echoes this process by saying every student should ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’.
Teachers need to reconnect their students with their inclinations - we need, it seems, ‘learning recovery’ and do everything to help students to develop areas of personal interests to contribute to ensuring purpose in their lives.
Teachers need to provide a varied diet of experiences to provide opportunities to attract and engage student’s attention. Creative teachers know this. Real curriculums emerge through shared inquiry not delivered by outside experts.
Once students involve themselves in their own learning they need to value their strengths not their limitations and to value the importance of effort and practice. Stickablity. Many examples of those referred to in the book who have achieved mastery did so by ignoring their limitations and by building on their strengths. It would seem important for teachers to assist their students achieve a sense of mastery by doing fewer things well and to allow their students to dig deeply into areas of personal concern so as to produce results of personal excellence.
‘Hardwiring of creative power’ cannot occur in classrooms where students are constantly distracted moving from one task or class to another. Once an action becomes automatic, through experience and practice, students gain the mental space to reflect on their action – to work on areas needing improvement – which in turn brings greater skills and more pleasure.
There is research that shows that anyone who achieves a high level of skill have put in over 10000 hours of focussed practice and this applies to composers, chess players, writers and athletes.
And once skill and confidence is achieved through time and practice then it is possible to move to experimentation and true creativity – learning has become second nature.
Unfortunately schools, as they are currently arranged, values reasoning with word and numbers above making and building. Academic success is valued above practical hands on exploring. Creativity is limited to superficial decorative ideas. As a result many creative students have little opportunity to value their talents and worse still feel disengaged from learning and leave feeling failures.
Greene’s book writes about the importance of mentors in the lives of creative people. A good mentor (or teacher) does not shortcut the learning process but streamlines it. They observe and give real time feedback making practice time more efficient. Ideally, if you are creative teacher practicing in creative activities yourself students absorb from you the essence of creativity. Mentors provide support, confidence and allow students time and space to discover things for themselves. This is in conflict with the deterministic and formulaic teaching models most schools seem to base their programmes on.Mentors also practice ‘tough love’ by providing constructive criticism. Students while needing to be receptive to their mentor’s ideas must also avoid falling under their spell. Students need to cultivate some distance to develop their own unique ideas. A look around many schools shows an unsettling conformity of student learning – even in such a creative subject as art.
Greene’s book explores the full range of human talents including social intelligence writing that empathetic skills are as important as reasoning ones – it is notable that such vital skills are ignored by the National Standards which limit their judgments to success in literacy and numeracy. Those who show empathy mastery are able to immerse their minds in the world of others. An acceptance of every learner’s backgrounds and cultures is a vital skill for teachers.
One feature of creative individuals Greene mentions is what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the ability to live through uncertainty and doubts. Current pre-determined school programmes are in conflict with this acceptance of uncertainty. The human mind is naturally creative, it wants to explore but it is easily killed when we grow afraid of making mistakes. But it is equally true that we all possess the potential to recover the potential to be creative which ought to give hope to all teachers.
The secret is to widen the view of creativity and to get learners to appreciate the importance of time and effort. Students need to learn to face up positively to the inevitable failures and setbacks that are part of learning, to learn to cope with uncertainty, and most of all not to give up. Students also need to choose realistic tasks, ones which they have the requisite skills in place, and then to let go of the stifling need for certainty and security. Teachers can do much to encourage such attitudes.
The creative process goes through several stages that students to appreciate. The first is thing is to let the mind absorb ideas without judgement. This is Keats’s negative capability – the need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.
It is interesting to learn that many profound discoveries occur when the mind is not directly concentrating on the problem. At such moments ideas unexpectedly enter the mind. Such chance associations are known as serendipity but this only occurs after information has been entered into the brain. Chance favours the prepared mind. Many creative masters find it valuable to go for walks, listen or play music but when a new idea enters consciousness then it is time for full attention. As Greene writes discoveries are, ‘like seeds floating in space, require the soil of a highly prepared mind and an open mind to take root and sprout into a meaningful idea’.
In many classrooms, particularly teachers trying to get students to understand maths, we push understanding onto our students that make little sense to them. Students need teachers who listen to them, who understand what they are thinking and feeling, and who see the importance of more fun, less abstract, experiences to feed the minds need for connection. Most importantly such learners need to be given a new perspective about maths to allow them to enjoy and learn. Unfortunately students are taught by teachers whose approach to maths (and other learning areas) is negatively coloured by their own previous experiences.
There is a pattern in the lives of creative people.First there is the initial excitement coming from personal involvement. Then they gather all sorts of information followed by a shaping and narrowing of possibilities but such individuals are not easily satisfied with what they are doing, they entertain doubts but they plow forward. They might take a break and temporarily work on something else. It seems that temporarily losing the initial excitement provides motivation to look at our work objectively and not to settle too early on an easy solution.
Greene suggests that the key is to be aware of this process, to live with doubts and to work towards solutions. If students think that learning is a simple linear process they will not succeed if they come across difficulty. Time is required, going slow is a virtue but so it seems are deadlines – with deadlines the mind rises to the occasion.
The premise Greene puts forward that if we can get our students creativity involved in learning that they are interested in they will not be so attracted by drugs alcohol and other dangerous activities. If this were the case our schools suffer from an ‘opportunity ‘rather than an ‘achievement gap’.
To become creative schools need to focus on identifying students’ talents and gifts , to value their ‘voices’, and to ensure all students retain their innate learning identities. To ensure at all costs learners love learning for its own sake, to have open minds, to start out in unstructured manner and then to search and dig deeply about what attracts them.
In all areas of life, Greene writes, ‘we suffer from dead forms and conventions’ that detract from creativity. Schools, as currently structured, come to mind.
‘When you look at the creative work of Masters, you must not ignore the years of practice, the endless routines, the hours of doubt, and the tenacious overcoming of obstacles these people endured’.
Creativity is not the step by step rational evidence based learning schools often follow; the achievements of the Masters cannot be reduced to a formula but the process they go through is accessible to us all. The amazing abilities of the Masters has been achieved, it has been shown, by minds altered after approximately 10000 hours of practice and hard work. At this point they are able to act intuitively.
For students to achieve such high levels of mastery they need to be provided with qualitatively rich learning experiences where students are inspired to be engaged and where they are able to see personal connections – difficult in current traditional fragmented school programmes where they are exposed to simplified ideas of reality and conventional ways of thinking. ‘Why’, writes Greene, ‘should any individual stop at poetry, or find art unrelated to science, or narrow his or her intellectual interests? The mind was designed to connect things, like a loom that knits together all of the threads of a fabric’
Greene writes that the greatest example is the Renaissance where the ideal was to connect all branches of learning and where there was no division between the arts and the sciences. ‘Perhaps today’, he writes, ‘we are witnessing the early signs of a return to reality, a Renaissance in modern form’ with ‘the artificial barriers between the arts and the sciences will melt away’.
Imagine if students were immersed in a creative personalised culture at school rather than the increasingly standardised experience we have today?
Mastery’, Greene writes, ‘is not a question of genetics or luck, but by following your natural inclinations and the deep desire that stirs from within. Everyone has such inclinations…something (that) marked you from birth as unique.’
Imagine if schools were premised on the need to develop the gifts and talents of all learners.