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The Value of Mastery

I mentioned in a previous blog that I enjoyed reading ‘The Plantagenets’ by Dan Jones over the summer, which piqued my interest in a period of history that I have never studied in any depth.  This interest was reinforced by the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine, which has an article about the role of medieval queens such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre and Isabella of Angoulême – a fascinating group of women, with far more power and influence than they usually get credit for.

The magazine also contained an interview with Charles Spencer, the brother of Diana, Princess of Wales.  He has yet to make an appearance in the episodes of Season Four of ‘The Crown’ that I have seen so far, but this discussion was not about his sister, but about his latest book.  ‘The White Ship’ tells the story of a shipwreck in 1120 that killed the eldest son of Henry I, as well as many of the ‘bright young things’ at court, and which led to almost twenty years of civil war as Stephen and Matilda battled for control of England, during a time known as 'The Anarchy’. 

Further details about the life of Edward I and his wife, Eleanor of Castile, can be found in ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari.  (I know that I keep referencing Hariri’s books in these blogs, but they really are very good and they contain so much that I find fascinating.)  Apparently, according to YNH, sources mention sixteen children born to Edward and Eleanor between 1255 and 1284.  The youngest, Edward, was the first of the boys to survive the dangerous years of childhood, and at his father’s death he ascended the throne as King Edward II.  In other words, it took Eleanor sixteen attempts to carry out the most fundamental mission of an English queen – to provide her husband with a male heir.  Edward II’s mother must have been a woman of exceptional patience and fortitude. 

Not so the woman Edward chose for his wife, Isabella of France, who had him murdered in an allegedly grisly fashion so that she could take over ruling the country with her lover – but that’s a story for another day!  Harari says that to the best of our knowledge, Eleanor and Edward were a healthy couple and passed no fatal hereditary illnesses on to their children.  Nevertheless, ten out of their sixteen children – 62 per cent – died during childhood.  Only six managed to live beyond the age of eleven and only three – just 18 per cent – lived beyond the age of forty.  In addition to these births, Eleanor most likely had a number of pregnancies that ended in miscarriage.  On average, Edward and Eleanor lost a child every three years, ten children one after another.  It is nearly impossible for a parent today to imagine such loss.

When I started teaching, back in the days before the internet, before the Premier League and when there were still only four television channels, the first topic I was asked to deliver in depth was the Third Reich.  I knew a little about it from my studies at university, but it was clear that in order to explain a topic to a class of pupils you need to develop a real understanding of what actually happened, usually by reading books, but also from other sources.  I must be a visual learner to some extent because I often find it easier to retain knowledge from watching television and videos than I do from printed text.  Growing up, I was not a keen reader, but I watched a lot of programmes, so I can only assume these were the source of much of my general knowledge.

After a few years developing a reasonably deep, though narrow, knowledge of a period of history that, for all its horrors and consequences, only lasted twelve years, the opportunity came to broaden my range, firstly through learning about other European dictators – Stalin, Mussolini and Franco – and then a complete change of scene with the Tudors, and more recently the Stuarts.  Perhaps it will be the Plantagenets next?  Each time it required a considerable effort to come to terms with all the material, but it was also deeply satisfying because there was a genuine sense of achievement in learning something new, and then being able to explain it to others.

I reckon it takes about three years to develop the knowledge and understanding you need to deliver a new course properly, and it may take a bit longer for those in the early stages of their careers.  I have always tried to suggest, even to the most ambitious younger colleagues, that a five-year stay in each school is a good idea.  During my secondary school career, I did four years, seven, six, nine and now three (so far), which helped me to learn my craft and, I am sure, made me a better practitioner.

But there is a reason why people talk of mastery as being of such value, and something that many, if not most, of us will only rarely achieve.  I have never called myself either a historian or an expert in my field, because I genuinely do not think I am either.  If I was going on Mastermind, I would probably choose ‘Fawlty Towers’ as my specialist subject, rather than anything I have studied or taught over the years.       

In his book ‘Drive’, Daniel Pink talks about mastery as being an asymptote.  He says that you can approach it.  You can home in on it.  You can get really, really close to it.  But you can never touch it.  To those seeking mastery, the joy is in the pursuit more than the actualisation.  In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.  When we are teaching children, Pink asks, do we promote mastery by offering a novel and engaging task, as opposed to rote reformulation of something already covered in class?  Do the children understand the purpose of the assignment?  Can they see how doing this activity contributes to the larger enterprise with which the class is engaged?  I like to think the answer is yes for the vast majority of the learning that goes on at school, but I am not so naïve as to believe it is always the case.

I will leave the final words this week to Angela Duckworth, from her book ‘Grit’.  Highlighting the benefits of pursuing mastery, she says that skipping around from one skill set to an entirely different one, from one kind of pursuit to another, is not what gritty people do.  Grit is not just working hard.  That is only part of it.  There are no shortcuts to excellence.  Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time – longer than most people imagine.  And then you have got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people.  Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you are willing to stay loyal to it.  It is doing what you love, but not just falling in love – it’s staying in love.

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