There are keys to becoming a master of a subject.  “Mastery” implies that teachers have gotten students to master a concept.

Keys to Becoming a MasterThey have learned everything there is to know about it, and are ready to move on.

This definition of mastery doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve studied topics for years and never “mastered” them. In fact, I earned my master’s degree in education more than a decade ago, but I learn how to be a better teacher every day.

Each interaction with a student, every conference I attend, and daily conversations with colleagues continually expand my understanding. I can always learn more and explore a topic further.

The term mastery creates this illusion that we can master a concept or skill—when, in reality, mastery isn’t an end point but rather an elusive goal that remains forever out of reach. This may dishearten some, but I prefer this definition. There is no dead end in learning.

Absolute mastery of a subject may remain out of reach, but there are degrees of mastery. In that sense, students can master a subject—to a degree.

This is broadly recognized, as in the ancient game of chess, which confers titles of chess master and grand master on players with varying degrees of expertise.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes that mastery is “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.” 

When I dissect this definition in the context of the classroom, I’m struck by two elements. First, students must have a desire to get better. Second, they must feel that what they’re learning or doing matters.

Ultimately, to pursue mastery, classrooms need to focus on five “musts”—and technology supports them all.

1. Creativity and Play

When we teachers talk about our curriculums, we often refer to the “work” students are doing. This word does not have positive connotations for most students.

Telling students they’ll be working doesn’t elicit smiles or laughter, excite creativity, or inspire innovative thinking.

Students have done a lot of work in school—and it isn’t fun. It usually involves listening to the teacher, taking notes, or working on a challenging set of problems or a complex writing task.

It often happens in isolation, and their work is usually judged. This work also bears little relevance to their lives beyond the classroom. This may explain why so many kids claim to hate school.

The way we define a task has a big effect on how it’s perceived. What if we stop referring to learning as “work” and start calling it “play”?

When students hear the word play, they think of fun activities that involve movement, friends, and toys. So why not make the classroom a place where students play as they learn, interacting with their peers using tech toys?

A Great Way to Test

As a 9th and 10th grade English language arts teacher, I’ve replaced pen-and-paper quizzes and test-preparation sessions, which are definitely work, with a different kind of quiz—fun “space races” using the student-response system Socrative, in which students work together to answer questions in a group competition.

I create quizzes on Socrative and group students; each group’s objective is to get its colored rocket to the finish line first. I’ve used space races to do icebreaker activities, reading quizzes, final exam reviews, and SAT preparation sessions.

The races encourage students to talk, ask one another questions, and work as a team to find answers. They change students’ perception of the activity from work to play.

They also give me immediate visual feedback in the form of an Excel spreadsheet that shows which questions each group of students answered correctly or incorrectly.

If a large percentage of students missed a particular problem, I can review that information and give them opportunities to practice similar problems.

Continue reading Five Musts for Mastery.

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Keys to Becoming a Master