Defining “mastery”

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

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3 thoughts on “Defining “mastery”

  1. Traditionally the word “master” has often been used for someone who had completed roughly five to seven years training. For example, a “Master of Arts” usually meant someone who had studied for about that length of time, and apprenticeships would usually be of that length. Sometimes the apprenticeship would end with the apprentice completing a work of art to demonstrate their mastery – the “Masterpiece” – after which they would be considered a master themselves.

    That fits in quite well with the “10,000 hours rule”, as it would usually take about that many years to get 10,000 hours of solid practice, if working full time.

    So I think it fits with tradition to use the word “Mastery” for something that you have properly trained at for at least five to seven years or so.

  2. This is an interesting discussion and I wish to disagree with the point made by Tim, concerning the “10,000 hours rule”.

    Mastery of a subject is a matter of individual achievement. It is not causally-related to the amount of seat-time that someone spends as a student or apprentice.

    And I reject the idea that you need to be “properly trained” to master a skill or a subject matter.

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