Dangerous Child: The Road to Mastery

We talk a lot about competence in the dangerous child, and certainly competence is crucial when dealing with dangerous (and valuable) skills. But on the road to mastery, competence occurs somewhere near the half-way point.

In 1980, Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus described A FIVE-STAGE MODEL OF THE MENTAL ACTIVITIES INVOLVED IN DIRECTED SKILL ACQUISITION (PDF). In the document, they describe 5 steps, or stages, in the growth from beginner to master:

  1. Novice
  2. Competent
  3. Proficient
  4. Expert
  5. Master

Since then, the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model has been altered so that the 5 stages are now:

Novice — Advanced Beginner — Competent — Proficient — Expert

When reduced to just 3 stages common to both ancient and modern guilds, we would describe the model as Apprentice — Journeyman — Master.

Slideshare presentation of the Dreyfus & Dreyfus model

The road to mastery is a long one, which modern western educational systems are reluctant to follow. The resistance to mastery learning among modern educators is extremely strong, perhaps due to the time and effort required of both teacher and learner.

Famed psychologist of expert learning, K. Anders Ericsson, says that world class mastery requires at least 10 years of directed practise by the most gifted, and more like 15 to 25 years of hard directed practise by the merely elite (PDF).

In Ericsson’s view, it is the duration and quality of practise which determines who will master the skill, rather than innate talent or IQ. Perhaps it is best to adopt that view, and teach students to enjoy the hard effort required to achieve mastery, even if it is not entirely correct.

After all, even among the elite, there are those who are clearly superior, who took much less time and practise to achieve higher levels of mastery than the masses of those who are considered “expert” or “master.” But again, perhaps it is best to focus on teaching students to enjoy mastering challenges, and solving difficult problem after difficult problem. Students who incorporate persistence and grit along with expertise, are more likely to succeed.

But each child is different, with different propensities and likelihood of achieving mastery, for a wide range of skills and practises. Some children are more likely to be happy as specialists, while others are more naturally generalists. Not only must we provide the child with a likely path to mastery in his general field of choice, we must also learn to gauge his optimal balance of depth vs breadth.

For students who wish a shallower level of mastery for a large number of different fields, the mastery of “heuristics” in each field is likely to be very important.

For those who wish to master a smaller number of fields, the utilisation of customised “mastery learning” should take them to a deeper level, as appropriate.

And for those who are compelled to take the field or profession beyond the level of its current masters — to achieve creative innovation and genius level work — a working through the entire 5 stage Dreyfus and Dreyfus model is required, plus just a little extra.

When a master is doing genius level revolutionary innovation, he is working at a hypothetical “level 6” or higher. He is devoting his entire being to the problem, over an extended period of time. This is something that is not easily taught — if it can be taught at all.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, illustrates some of the problems in making decisions and judgments at different stages from novice to expert.

Typically we think of the early stages of mastery as involving more conscious and deliberative thinking, while the more expert stages involve more automatic and intuitive types of thinking.

But if experts and masters cannot “keep their hand in” with the earlier skills of deliberative and conscious thinking and fact-checking, they may be at a loss when entirely new problems arise which do not succumb to their intuitions and learned automaticities.

Early stage learning — before the ages of 12 or 16 — will provide the child with a wide range of competencies and mid-level skills which fall far below mastery. But if sometime between the ages of 5, and 12 to 16, the child experiences a special affinity to and talent for one or more skills, he should be encouraged along a road that might lead to mastery of the special skill or skills. The more high quality directed development time the child can put in for a particular skill, the closer to world class mastery he can come.

Early stage learning focuses upon heuristics and rules of thumb. These are practical and easy to remember scaffolds of learning, for building more detailed structures of learning later.

Many people go through their entire lives without ever going beyond the early heuristic level of learning for any given field. And some do not even get that far.

For those who wish to raise truly dangerous children, it is important that you learn to provide the important heuristics which will keep the child safe even in a dangerous environment. And should the child show a marked preference for any particular dangerous environments, the child should not only be given the crucial heuristics to keep him safe, but should also be helped further along the road to mastery so that he can shape both himself, and the environment itself to his own advantage.

Finally, a caveat: IQ and innate ability do play an important part in the road to mastery along with innate inclinations — despite what well-meaning experts such as KA Ericsson may claim publicly. Pay close attention to cues which may indicate an especially fulfilling direction of development for a particular child.

Children can become infatuated with a particular field without understanding the incredible amount of difficult work that is necessary for mastery of it. It is important that children be given a chance to prove themselves, but in a realistic — not pampered or sheltered — way. Force them to see what the thing really is, and what it will take to achieve it. Be brutally honest here, or you may do far more harm than you realise.

The child does not have time for a large number of abortive attempts at mastery, if it takes between 15 and 25 years for him to achieve top level mastery. And most parents don’t have the time, patience, or the money to support multiple failed attempts.

Yes, you want the child to aim high. But: Do not pamper. Do not shelter. Do not encourage fantasy dreams which are without realistic possibility. Make the child prove himself each step of the way, but be sure to provide the opportunity for him to do so.

More: We have pointed out in previous articles that dangerous children should be able to support themselves economically — in multiple ways — by the time he or she is 18. This is due to the multiple skills and competencies which the child will have learned on the path to becoming dangerous.

This is a very good thing for parents, who will no doubt have their own uses for their hard-earned wages. A widely-competent dangerous child should be able to finance his own long experimentation into mastery over the decades of early to middle adulthood.

Dangerous children typically remain dangerous over entire lifetimes. They are far less likely to sink deeply into time-killing entertainments and mind-wasting amusements and intoxicants. Parents give dangerous children their start, but it is the children themselves who must find their own way.

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