Finding mastery in contribution

Listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour has fast become one of my morning routines during the daily commute to school. This week, Sarah Lewis’ closing remarks during her talk on ‘how near wins motivate us to keep going’ stood out in my mind:

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end, they’re masters because they realise there isn’t one.

Straight off the bat, it’s easy to see how Lewis’ words could be likened to Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset, where mastery is achieved through ongoing dedication and hard work and characterised by the mantra of ‘not yet’.

While Dweck’s work is very appealing, my classroom explorations (through Class Dojo, for instance) have left me with the feeling that it can privilege competition over cooperation, and in doing so, foreground the ego and marginalise those ‘fixed mindsets’ in the room even further.

So, on the phenomenon of growth mindset, I am supportive of regenerative thinker, Ash Buchanan’s appraisal:

While her work has been instrumental in explaining how we can achieve our potential, its orientation, as the title suggests, is towards individual success and accomplishment, rather than what’s good for us collectively. There is an argument to say that, by giving the ‘psychology of success’ a name, it has encouraged a great many people to pursue ‘accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake’, more so than thinking about how they can contribute to the collective good.

Rather than personal achievement, I would like to believe that inspiration for learning comes from a more insightful place; the feeling of being connected to and interacting with a broader system of knowledge and ideas. Where being part of a community of inquiry is more valuable than reaching the next personal milestone. Bring forth the deliberations of Parker J Palmer, who reminds us to put the subject at the centre of teaching and learning:

We say that knowing begins in our intrigue about some subject, but that intrigue is the result of the subject’s actions upon us: geologists are people who hear rocks speak, historians are people who hear the voices of the long dead, writers are people who hear the music of words. The things of the world call to us, and we are drawn to them – each of us to different things, as each is drawn to different friends.

Students overburdened with the weight of their own learning can create an inner hubris to protect them from failure (“I don’t need to know that”), just as teachers who position themselves as the sole gatekeepers of knowledge create imaginary barriers to progress (“our kids just aren’t capable of learning that”). When in this state, Palmer says:

We are whiplashed between an arrogant overestimation of ourselves and a servile underestimation of ourselves, but the outcome is always the same: a distortion of the humble yet exalted reality of the human self, a paradoxical pearl of great price.

Could mastery be redefined in terms of our valuable and ongoing contributions to the subject of learning? Could this lead to a more authentic student engagement? I’m keen to learn more.

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