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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Pedagogical Knowledge Part 2- Mastery & Practice: Teaching for the 21st-Century Learner:

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

An effective teacher must master the pedagogical skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of student mastery of content and skills as well as practice and feedback.


Complex skills are usually made up of mastery of several sub-skills. For example, to write well, students need to master vocabulary, grammar, syntax, mechanics, voice, and style. Additionally, they must also be able to group and organize their thoughts to be logical and well suited to the audience, purpose, and genre they are writing. Teachers' main difficulty in teaching to mastery is that many of these subskills have become automatic. Because teachers don't routinely think about these subskills, they are challenging to communicate and teach to novice learners. However, there are several powerful strategies to help students master skills and content. One of the most critical is for them to take ownership of their learning. Taking ownership of their education results in motivated, engaged, and self-directed learners (more on this later). Additionally, teachers should provide their students with scaffolding and support as they move from novice to mastery. First proposed by educational psychologist Jerome Bruner in the 1950s, scaffolding is when teachers break up concepts and or skills into manageable chunks and provide students enough support to guide them to mastery. Scaffolding can be done with one-to-one teaching or in collaborative learning environments where students can observe, ask questions and teach other content and skills.

In addition to scaffolding, teachers should provide students with "voice and choice" of high-quality, standards-based learning opportunities. According to the Center for American Progress, student voice is the input that students have regarding their educations and may include instructional topics, student learning styles, the ways schools are designed, and more. Student voice is critical to historically marginalized students such as Black, Latinx, Native American, and socio-economically vulnerable students, and students with disabilities as these students have not traditionally had a seat at the table regarding their educations (Benner, Jeffrey, & Brown, 2019). Research indicates that when students have agency, such as when they plan educational activities, their investment, ownership, and consequent learning significantly increase (Flutter 2006; Grace 1999; Wehmeyer & Sands 1998; Platz 1996). A meta-study conducted in 2008 of the effects of choice on student learning supports this conclusion, “Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes.” Further, research supports what many students knew all along. When “students received a choice of homework they reported higher intrinsic motivation to do homework, felt more competent regarding the homework, and performed better on the unit test than when they did not have a choice. In addition, a trend suggested that having options enhanced homework completion rates compared with when teachers did not provide alternatives. (Patall, Cooper, & Wynn, 2010). Students' voice and choice are important because it leads to student engagement, which is necessary for students to master educational content. Leading educational researcher Robert Marzano points out: “Choices of task, reporting format, or learning goal allow students to take control of their learning and make decisions that ensure personal interest in their assignments. To provide a choice of task to students, a teacher can provide multiple task options on an assessment and ask students to respond to the one that interests them most. Similarly, a teacher can provide students with the option to choose their own reporting format. The two most common reporting formats are written and oral reports, as they can be used with most subjects. However, students may also choose to present information through debates, video reports, demonstrations, or dramatic presentations. To give students a particularly powerful choice, a teacher can ask students to create their own learning goals. When giving students the option to design their own learning goals, a teacher should hold students accountable for both their self-identified learning goal as well as teacher-identified learning goals for that unit” (pp. 101–104).

Practice and Feedback

Practice makes perfect, but how much practice? In Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell points out that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of a given skill. He writes, "The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery." Research indicates that practice must be deliberate, meaning that it must be purposeful, and systematic.

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a pioneer and leading researcher in the field of expertise and human performance, suggests that all human beings are capable of achieving mastery of a given domain through what he dubbed deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is different than regular practice in that through deliberate practice; a practitioner breaks down a given task into its constituent parts or chunks. They then master the component parts through daily practice, usually accompanied by immediate coaching and feedback. Ericsson points out, "we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain" (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). In other words. "perfect practice results in perfect performance." Deliberate practice combined with grit and determination results in mastery far more often than innate talent alone.

In addition to practice, teachers must provide students with consistent feedback. Failure to do so could result in students practicing the wrong things. An effective way to gauge students' level of mastery is through formative assessments. Formative assessments are assessments for learning and are used to measure proficiency during a unit of study. They are also an excellent way to spot students' misunderstanding of concepts. Formative assessments can be quizzes, exit tickets, and quick writes, to name a few. Student responses during class discussions are an excellent way to gauge student learning. On the other hand, summative assessments are assessments of learning. They are used to measure what a student has learned, usually in chapter or unit tests.

In my next blog post I will examine student development and school culture and climate. I would be delighted for you to join me. Please sign up to receive email notifications so that you don't miss future content. Thanks for reading!

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