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How Do Students Develop Mastery?

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

I'm a basketball fan and with the NBA Playoffs around the corner, I am guaranteed a lot of late nights, a number of close, tense games, and, hopefully, a close Finals. I say hopefully because the Golden State Warriors have a dynasty-caliber team. While I am not a huge Stephen Curry fan, I am amazed at the way he has mastered three-point shooting. If you have ever watched him, it appears that he just flicks the ball at the basket and it goes through cleanly almost every time. I constantly find myself thinking that he just must be lucky to drain those shots. The truth is he puts in a tremendous amount of practice.

In education, we often speak about developing mastery of specific skills or a subject area. Just as with three-point shooting, if you want to master a cognitive skill, you have to practice. But how exactly do we teach mastery? There is a body of research that indicates that practicing does not make perfect; just shooting three-pointers won't make you a better shooter. Anders Ericsson, has written extensively that developing mastery of a skill requires what he terms "deliberate practice." In teaching, we need to break down specific skills and then practice discreet elements of those skills.

The second aspect to developing a particular skill or expertise is the use of feedback. When we start learning, we need information on how we are performing. To develop specific skills, we must receive evaluation and feedback. But not just any feedback. Learners require what is called targeted feedback. John Hattie, a researcher in education, has identified different forms of effective feedback. Hattie's research indicates that outside evaluation that is targeted is the best kind. So in schools that means teachers giving clear and specific feedback or in basketball shooting coaches breaking down the elements of a shot. That is the most effective way to provide feedback and lead a learner to mastery.

A few years ago I was reading about how Steph Curry became the best shooter in the NBA. An article by Rob Mahoney details the "fine tuning" practice sessions that Curry uses. Not only does he work hard, but Curry's practice involves breaking down the elements of shooting to their very basic elements and then watching film and receiving feedback from coaches. I may not be a Steph Curry fan, but as an educator, it is clear that Curry has learned that deliberate practice and targeted feedback are two of the key elements to developing mastery when learning any skill.

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