I was recently taken by a TED talk by Sal Khan about teaching for mastery of skills and not test scores. His focus was largely on primary and secondary schooling.

At first, I got the feeling that he was being overly idealistic and that his concepts and arguments could not work in practice. He related his ideas to the notion of mathematics and how the education system just rolls over the top of those kids that don’t get mathematical concepts and then seems perplexed when the same kids two, three, four years down the track can’t grasp more difficult concepts like algebra. But then I got it. It’s simple. Because they were forgotten. Forgotten because of time constraints or crowded curriculums and hence could never effectively advance.

Just pause for a moment. Imagine if we applied the same analogy to training pilots. Let’s say for simplicity sake, pilot training is divided into three lessons.

  1. Take-Off
  2. Flying (Mid-Air)
  3. Landing

There are 10 people in our class learning to be pilots.

Of these 10 people, only 7 grasped the concept of Take-Off. So the instructor moves on to controlling the plane in mid-air. All 10 students grasp this concept and can control the plane in mid-air. Yippee! The final lesson involves landing. Now because there were concepts that had to be grasped in Lesson One to be able to complete Lesson Three – we have a problem. 30% of the students would have to either stay in the air (if their instructors had taken off for them) or not fly at all because they couldn’t even get the plane off the ground! Of course, let’s not forget those still in the air that got the take-off bit but still had to land their plane!

The whole thing is ridiculous, isn’t it? We would never train pilots like this. In aviation, until a pilot can master basic fundamentals they cannot progress on to more difficult concepts. So why do we do it with other forms of education? Is it because the risk is not so apparent? Just because a man-made object won’t fall out of the sky we don’t put as much emphasis on the learning and the mastery of skills? Surely it can’t simply be a matter of money or political expediency…Rhetorical, I know.

So why do we put up with it? Why don’t we seek out change? Why don’t we get creative?

Yes, money and politics will always muddy the waters but that doesn’t mean that we can’t rethink the way we learn.

I will always present my arguments from the perspective of adult learning. Unless a quantum leap is taken in the way in which our K-12 schooling occurs (take Finland as an example) – the issues Sal Khan talks about in his TED talk will take some time to dismantle.

As adults though, we have the opportunity to change the way we learn. We can be creative in the way in which we learn. We have time on our side and we can dictate the curriculum. This means that we can master the take-off before we decide that we want to actually fly. It is this very creativity that enables us to ultimately become masters at our craft, masters of our own direction. Creativity unlocks the potential for mastery.

Here’s why.

How often have you heard about ‘child prodigies’ and people with ‘raw talent’ or ‘gifted individuals’. Talent, gifts and being a prodigy will only get you so far. It is what you do with the gifts you have that makes the difference. The hare was gifted with speed but he still didn’t win the race against the tortoise. I play tennis once a week with people that are considerably older than I. I have difficulty beating them because of their mastery of the game as opposed to any talent they may have. They are creative shot makers. Through their creativity, they have learned to master their game.

I can never tell people how to be creative. The notion of creativity is so broad that to try and distil it into a 3, 5 or 10 step plan would be a nonsense. What we must do, is practise our skills, but every time we practice, ask ourselves what if we tried it another way…

Applying the same thinking to any other venture you may undertake and you will find yourself mastering that venture, that skill, that vocation through your own creativity. You will take off in your own good time, you will fly and you will be ready to land like an ace.

Shane Mallory

Shane is a performer, emcee, host, communicator, creative, mentor and innovative theatre director. He lives in Ipswich, Queensland with his wife Natalie, who are almost 'empty nesters' providing a home for their two daughters' dog and two cats.


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