Mastery Learning – A Craftperson’s Mindset

Ever start out playing an instrument only to let it sit in the closet after a few weeks?

Or how about a video game where you get to a particular level and just can’t seem to get past it so you quit?

Or that 3-point shot from the corner that just won’t drop?

What is the difference between those who get to a certain point, accomplish some aspects and those who become masters of their craft?

According to Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, those who achieve mastery practice about 10,000 hours. Although this has been contested by some, there is still the general agreement that those who achieve in their field of choice put in more time than others.

But is all practice the same?

Deliberate Practice

Cal Newport in So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Why Skills Trump Passions in the Quest for Work You Love describes how developing the mindset of a craftsman requires a dedication to deliberate practice. In order to grow and develop, we need to seek feedback, implement that feedback, and continue with deliberate practice in a continuous loop. Using different examples of people from a variety of backgrounds and vocations, Newport explores how not all practice is the same and that to move beyond the ‘average’ requires deliberate practice. People who continually improve are those who seek input about their work from others. But this input isn’t just generic, “What do you think I could do better?” but specifically directed at specific aspects of their work. They then use the input to become better at what they are doing. These people seek are deliberate feedback about how they can improve, stretching themselves to do things just beyond their abilities. They are working to improve and then seeking yet more feedback.

Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practices demands….Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate’, as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Geoff Colvin

Newport tells the story of Jordan Tice, a professional guitar player, who developed his craft through deliberate practice – trying new things and getting feedback. When Jordan first began he sought out the help of a teacher who would give him timely, specific feedback.

Not only did Jordan’s early practice require him to constantly stretch himself beyond what was comfortable, but it was also accompanied by instant feedback. The teacher was always there, Jordan explained, “to jump in and show me if I junked up a harmony.” Watching Jordan’s practice routine, these traits – strain and feedback – remain central. Cal Newport

Making Connections – Sensing Shifts

Last week George Couros asked about the idea of Master-Based Learning. In his tweet, he referenced an article from – Goodbye to Grades? Master-Based Learning is Becoming the New Standard. I encourage you to read through the article.
Master-Learning is a shift from a mark-based system of advancement and, instead, focuses on feedback and growth as the students progress along a continuum toward mastery. Like developing a craft, feedback and improvement are an important part of the learning process. For students, portfolios become an integral part of the learning continuum as students are able to demonstrate their understanding of concepts through various modalities within their portfolios. Over time, their development and growth is part of this learning document as well as their own reflections about goals and ideas about improvement. Students use their skills and knowledge in a variety of areas, bridging the typical subject separation issues currently found in classrooms. Working towards mastery – setting goals, receiving feedback and stretching to improve – are critical attributes for students to develop. And just like Jordan, the feedback from a teacher is an integral component of improvement – always seeking to improve in some area – lifelong learning.

Currently, the main focus of reporting is on test scores and reporting grades to parents. This shouldn’t be surprising given the testing culture that exists at a global level. Countries across the globe are ranked in numerous ways by various groups with a myriad of results, often with a whole variety of interpretations. Sometimes cobbled into this discussion is the idea of teacher compensation and pay. Often lost in this discussion is the “learning” part.

Mastery Learning

In the assessment class I teach at university, one of the topics we explore is an assessment plan which is an examination of the use of assessment in a particular unit of study. The reason for this is to help students see the importance of feedback for student learning and growth and the role feedback has as part of the assessment process. As in the case of Jordan’s teacher, it was the ability to “jump in” that was a critical part of the learning but being able to do that requires there is an end destination that is clear to both the teacher and the student.

Teachers often talk about providing feedback and Formative Assessment has become an important topic as part of classroom assessment practices. There is growing awareness that providing feedback to students throughout the learning process is vital to their growth and development. Helping students to view assessment as part of the learning process is also an integral part of having a Growth Mindset.

However, as Dr. Carol Dweck has discussed, Growth Mindset isn’t just about trying:

Growth mindset’s popularity was leading some educators to believe that it was simpler than it was, that it was only about putting forth effort or that a teacher could foster growth mindset merely by telling kids to try hard. A teacher might applaud a child for making an effort on a science test even if he’d failed it, for instance, believing that doing so would promote a growth mindset in that student regardless of the outcome. But such empty praise can exacerbate some of the very problems that growth mindset is intended to counter.

Having a Growth Mindset means students believe they have talents and abilities and the way to improve these are to challenge them, work hard to improve, stick with learning something even if it doesn’t come easy – that’s how development and growth occur.

Setbacks and feedback weren’t about your abilities, they were information you could use to help yourself learn – Carol Dweck

Often, teachers want to be able to go with teachable moments or take a path suggested by students or let students head out on their own path and ‘jump in’ when it’s needed but hesitate because of the focus on covering content and meeting curriculum outcomes. This often results in a prodding process of learning. Another result of content focus is the teacher designs a series of fun activities for students. Having fun while learning is important but, often, fun becomes the primary objective.

There is a third alternative. As Katie White points out, if we know where we are going, we should feel confident to be able to take side paths and allow students to explore.

Blending the desire for adventure with the need for clarity supports a softened edge. This is the same reason why knowing our learning goals empowers and reassures us at the same time. If we know where we will end up, it gives us much more freedom to meander and explore the landscape on the way. Katie White, Softening the Edges – Assessment Practices that Honor K-12 Teachers and Learners

In this way, students are provided the opportunity to explore and delve into areas of interest, receiving feedback from the teacher who can ‘jump in’ when necessary since there is a clear destination for learning.

Newport outlines 5 Habits of a craftsman’s, 3 of which I find to be very adaptable for schools and classrooms.

1. Define “Good”:

How clear are the goals for learning? Do students know where they are going? How will we know when we have achieved what we set out to do? What will it look like? Sound like? What will we be able to do? For each of the examples Newport provides in the book, each person was able to identify what it meant to be ‘good’. Part of doing an Assessment Plan is to do exactly this – identify what is ‘good’. What is the destination and how might it look? This is often something quickly glossed over during planning – “We’ll create a rubric. I’ll find a rubric. I’ll give them feedback.” But what is the goal? Yes creating a rubric is part of the process as is giving feedback. But, could Jordan’s teacher give feedback or “jump in” without knowing the goal?

For many of us, we often begin without a clear goal. “l will get in better shape. I will lose weight. I will quit smoking.” These seem clear enough. But how will I know when I have reached them? What type of feedback will I need to receive?
When I finally quit smoking after endless attempts, it was because I set a specific goal with specific steps that clearly outlined what I would do to replace the bad habit with a better habit and who I would seek out for support to help me achieve the goal. To this day, over two years since I stopped smoking, I still use journalling but it has evolved to become my Morning Pages for writing.

2. Stretch and Destroy:

Stretching is often uncomfortable. Anyone who has taken part in athletics has at one point been required to do some stretching, either to warm up before an activity or cool down afterward. When I stretch, there is usually a point during the stretch that is just a little uncomfortable where I hold without going further as this may cause injury. According to Newport, this is similar to deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable. Cal Newport

When we are learning something new, we are often uncomfortable. It can be frustrating and sometimes hard to continue on. This is what Dr. Dweck was describing as a growth mindset – seeing the frustration and setbacks as being an important part of the learning process. If we only do what is easy, it’s not helping us stretch ourselves.

The second part, Destroy, focuses on feedback that is deliberate and helps us to become better. The honest feedback sheds light on areas that need improvement. With Mastery Learning, students use this feedback to continue toward the learning goal. It’s an essential part of developing skills for life-long learning. Todd Henry, in his book Louder than Words – Harness the Power of your Authentic Voice, shares the story of Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush considered to be one of the greatest rock and roll drummers. When asked during a Rolling Stone interview why he continues to take lessons, Peart replied

“What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession. I’ve been put in this position, and I certainly don’t underrate that. I get to be a professional drummer.” This mind-set of continuous growth is what keeps the masters at the top of their game.

Children, the ones who we should be untethering and provide feedback toward mastery learning, continue to be squeezed into a learning system that often lacks such opportunity and feedback.

3. Patience –

Steve Martin, when describing his learning to play the hammerclaw banjo :

if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.

Patience, probably the most difficult aspect of developing a craftperson’s mindset.

Patience, the willingness to forgo immediate satisfaction in the pursuit of something better at a later date.
In a world of instant gratification, this isn’t always easy. Yet, it can be found all around us in the work of game creators, artists, musicians, athletes, and apprentices the world over.

Schools have a unique opportunity to help students develop patience as they work toward mastery. There is an opportunity to develop patience through a cycle of learning, feedback, retrying, feedback – working towards improvement and mastery.

Yet, this is often short-circuited. As A J Juliani discusses in Why Stickers, Pizza Parties, and Tickets Didn’t Work in My Classroom,

All rewards have the same effect. They dilute the pure joy that comes from success itself.

Too often, the focus on short-term gains often over-shadows the patience required reach mastery. Grades are often used to separate the haves from the have nots. Behaviour charts instantly tell everyone how they are doing and show everyone else how they compare leaving little time for the patience needed to develop mastery.

Mastery develops over time, cultivated through feedback and the opportunity to do things over again incorporating feedback. Often, we begin by mimicking the work of others and then, after developing confidence, move out onto our own. Great musicians begin by playing the songs of earlier great musicians and writers study the writing of great writers. Each learns the craft before eventually moving off to do their own works. However, in schools, this is often not the case.

As a child, one of the worst labels you could receive was to be called a copycat. The strange irony is that mimicking is the very mechanism by which each child learns to unique. Todd Henry

All too often, students are asked to move mastery without having the time to get the necessary feedback in order to develop and improve their work. Mastery takes time and requires patience. It often shows itself after periods of seemingly little progress and, like so many of the greatest artists and writers, after being able to mimic and master the work of others.

I Wonder…

1. What would happen if schools shifted their focus to mastery learning and developing a continuum?

2. How can portfolios be used to demonstrate the power of feedback and a learning continuum?

3. How planning and assessment can be used to help students to focus on the learning?

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this.

You can connect with me at @kwhobbes on Twitter, leave me a comment here, or email me at

Until next Tuesday, keep the wonder alive!


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I am a husband, father, son.... I am currently working on my PhD in Education - Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is teacher professional development and social media integration. I have a beautiful, supportive wife who has been my partner for 28 years. We have 8 wonderful children who are amazing individuals. Together, we are exploring the world around us, sharing our stories, and enjoying the journey!