Every so often, I have the chance to recommit to yoga, and I never regret the decision to do so. It inspires me to listen to myself, to listen to my body, and to honor the perpetual process that is learning.
“Yoga isn’t meant to be fun,” the teacher said just last night, when I–for the first time–attempted restorative yoga. I was planning on a relaxing series of stretches and bends, but my experience was far from relaxing. On the contrary, it was quite challenging.
In extended periods of holding positions (even the calm ones), I found my brain writhing with motion, similar to how I felt the first time I went to meditation. The disquiet in my mind made the experience of staying present nearly impossible and the process of restoration an uphill battle. It was through this uphill battle that I understood what the yoga instructor was trying to say. The purpose of yoga was not necessarily for constant enjoyment. Yoga, while it can be fun, is challenging and meant to help train the mind and the body for long-term contentment and presence of mind. However, in order to experience temporary extremes of contentment, it’s also necessary to experience the temporary nature of discontent, for without discontent, it will be impossible to know, understand, and feel true contentment.
This is what makes yoga so rewarding, and this is what makes yoga a practice that requires commitment. It requires a deep intrinsic motivation, one that recognizes the ebbs and flows as a never-ending pursuit of mastery, all the while knowing that mastery is something that may be approached but never actually achieved.
In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he explores the idea of mastery as an asymptote. In algebra, an asymptote is a line or curve that is continuously approached by another curve with acute proximity, but to the point where it never actually reaches it. In order for this to occur, the curve that approaches the asymptote becomes closer and closer by slightly less and less, in opposition to the way an exponential function strives toward infinity more and more quickly as it progresses.
Mastery, in the classroom, functions in a very similar way, and as educators, we must approach mastery in this asymptotic manner, as well. The industrial model for education that currently plagues many of our classrooms assumes that mastery is an achievement, that with enough data points mastery can be reached and checked off. And while statistically, we can perhaps assume that a child has mastered an objective with enough assessments and data points to suggest so, without practice and continuous refinement, skills will start to decay, revealing the myth that is mastery.
So why, then, do we rely so heavily on this idea of mastery? Why do we pursue assessments that attempt to convey mastery of specific objectives?
I can’t be sure of the answer for all, but I can share my experience with mastery, shedding light on to why I’ve struggled with this concept, and provide some potential insight into why so many still struggle with it.
The education space is a place of fear. We are afraid of falling behind our international counterparts, and we’re terrified of what might happen if we cannot prove mastery in an objective manner. As a result, we strive to control the many variables that fill the classroom. By measuring these variables, we, invariably, feel like we’re controlling the inputs and outputs of the classroom. What we fail to realize, however, is that the process of measuring these inputs has the potential to distort the very things we’re trying to measure. This conundrum is known as Campbell’s Law, stating:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. —Wikipedia
Campbell’s Law, in effect, accounts for the test-centric practices we see in industrial-style classrooms, including inauthentic assessments of learning and adaptive digital programs that drag children through content, as opposed to immersing them in a deep and nuanced understanding of concepts. The latter is, in fact, honoring this asymptotic approach to mastery, where we understand that we will never actually be able to “check the box” for a certain objective or standard. Instead, we should be creating a constantly evolving portfolio of experiences that shed light on to said objectives or standards.
And here is where we need technology’s help: we need it to enable the easy documentation of these ephemeral experiences that shed light on to a child’s perpetual journey towards mastery and provide insight in to whether they’re experiencing the feeling of the continuous pursuit of mastery–of objectives, soft skills, or personal goals.
Does this mean we shouldn’t assess? Of course not. Assessment for learning, both quantitative and qualitative, is necessary in the classroom. But recognizing the myth of mastery will help us create a more holistic education for children and give us a better understanding of what to do with the assessments we use in our classroom; it will help us take a more contextualized and personalized approach to assessment, one that puts quantitative assessments that suggest mastery in the periphery and qualitative data that helps the child tell his or her story at the center; it will help us reveal personal qualities of the child’s learning preferences, interests, or unique successes and challenges, meanwhile making the connections between content visible, as opposed to isolating and decontextualizing objectives throughout the learning process.
Most of all, it will enable us to make learning personal once again, in a way that’s sustainable, scalable, and most importantly, child-centered.