In fact, according to the latest research in the psychology field all professions and fields can achieve excellence following three steps.
In the May/June 2011 issue of Networker, Scott Miller and Mark Hubble outlined these steps to achieving excellence. My writing is inspired by their article and reference to a conference that took place prior to the article being published. The conference was held in Kansas City, Missouri and included internationally acclaimed researchers, clinicians, performers, and celebrities. The purpose was to lay out a series of steps for psychotherapists to achieve excellence in their practice. Conference presenters set out to show attendees what could be accomplished following these three steps with the goal of getting therapists to commit to the hard work necessary to attain excellence.
As the story goes a young female pianist Rachel Hsu entered the stage at the start of the conference dressed simply in a black satin dress and red sash. She calmly adjusted her bench and quietly sat at her piano. Her hands hovered over the keys momentarily and then at once she engaged fully into her piece. The composition for all of the classical music lovers reading this was the Concert Etude no.3 by Franz Liszt. This work is a famously challenging to play and a pleasure to watch as quoted in the article. It was said the difficulty level on a scale of one to ten was a twelve to give you some perspective. At the conclusion of Rachel’s performance, the audience was literally in tears so taken by the amazing and extreme skill with which Rachel commanded her moving performance.
Even more intriguing is the fact that Rachel was only 8 years old. Responding afterwards to a barrage of compliments and questions she stated humbly that she had made mistakes they just did not notice them. Later in the empty hall she and her mom went back to the music and examined her mistakes so she would know exactly what to focus on going forward. How does an 8-year-old achieve such excellence? Does she mirror the researcher’s three steps to excellence in her approach to music? The answer to the later question is yes.
Rachel shared these three steps in her ensuing conversation (she was also presenting at this conference):
· Step one; know your baseline and your potential.
· Step Two; engage in deliberate practice.
· Step Three; obtain ongoing feedback.
Rachel shared that she practiced 4 hours every day including weekends and holidays amassing more than 4,000 hrs. or the equivalent of almost 170 straight days at the piano.
Researchers reflecting on the hours and commitment therapists portrayed were a bit puzzled as they pondered why there weren’t more excellent therapists since it was also the intention of most therapists to become as good as they possibly could. Why weren’t they seeing the results they hoped for in patient outcomes etc.? Then it dawned on them as they recognized in Rachel’s background the nearly invisible social network that existed to support Rachel’s success. Rachel had a network of social support. The authors Scott Miller and Mark Hubble refer to this as the social network of support. Social scaffolding as it was explained is a critical element for one who’s goal is attaining excellence. Rachel’s parents, peers, coaches, and vast access to resources comprised her social scaffold and led to her success.
Let’s shift gears now to the field of teaching. I know you have astutely recognized the parallels to our profession. Educators are drawn to the field of education for the same basic reason as therapists, to help others. Like therapists we also want to be the very best we can be. There are not too many teachers that would say they do not want to be anything less than excellent. Why then don’t we see dramatic improvements in teachers? Why aren’t so many teachers efforts who’s desire it is to be excellent being realized?
To answer these questions let’s look at the three steps more closely.
1. Do you know your baseline? How? Unless you have standards by which to assess your teaching how do you know where on the continuum of skill you fall? Have you considered your potential as a teacher? How much better do you think you can be? Get yourself a copy of: The InTASC Learning Progressions for Teachers
2. When it comes to intentional practice do you focus on your mistakes in order to improve? Let’s face it most of us are not comfortable focusing on our mistakes especially when we are told our performance is linked to our pay. There needs to be a shift in the way we look at ourselves. Let me be vulgar for a moment. As my colleague said recently, “we need to embrace suck.” If we suck at something okay then, embrace it. When we can be at ease with looking at our shortcomings we are mentally positioned to make improvements in our practice.
3. Do we obtain ongoing feedback? Having peers and supervisors look at our practice provides valuable input in planning our improvements and increases our effectiveness three fold. Ongoing feedback refers to frequency. The more often we receive feedback the quicker we can make changes and the faster we can grow. Consider setting up on line collaborations using Video Reflective Practice. We must structure our social network in such a way that we always have a feedback loop by which to see ourselves. That requires trust and aligning with people we trust and who honor our practice and can provide input without judgment. It also requires time to reflect.
Hopefully understanding the concept of social scaffolding will enable us to intentionally build our resources in order to support growing more highly effective. Ten thousand hours does not make one an expert if we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Having a good coach goes a long way in building our expertise. Also, shifting our thinking from just hanging on to the positive things we do to embracing our mistakes will engage us in making effective improvements. And finally, advocating for the time and structure we need to work along the continuum of improvement we will help us begin to see an increase in student achievement.
Isn’t that what it is all about?
* May/June 2011 issue of Networker article: The Road to Mastery by Scott Miller and Mark Hubble.