What does master teaching have in common with being a professional race car driver or a professional golfer?

by: Kenn Barron

Recently, I was asked what makes someone a master teacher. Like many concepts in higher education, there are numerous definitions linked with what a “master teacher” is or what a “master teacher” does. But rather than offering a definition, I wanted to share an analogy that I heard at a national teaching conference. One of the keynote speakers pointed out that just like driving a car our whole lives doesn’t qualify us to be a professional race car driver… being a teacher our whole lives doesn’t qualify us to be a master teacher.

This analogy quickly struck a chord with me. Last year, I had a friend who is a professional race car instructor invite me to go race with him. Even though I’ve been driving for over 25 years and I’ve ”practiced” driving a car each day for most of those years, his invitation instantly made me feel like a driving novice. I questioned whether I had the necessary skills to race against other expert (aka, master) drivers, and I was a little anxious saying yes to his offer. But like a master teacher, my friend started putting my fears to rest by showing me the training program that he takes drivers through to gradually help them move from being a novice to an expert.

The notion of how long it takes to move from a novice to an expert in any particular area has received a lot of attention as a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, “Outliers.” Gladwell is a science writer who excels at translating the research findings from my field of psychology for the everyday public, and in “Outliers” he highlights the “10,000 Hour Rule” where psychological research shows it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert on a given task. Then if we do a little math and consider dedicating ourselves full time to becoming an expert in something (8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 52 weeks of the year), it would take approximately 5 years to meet the 10,000 hour threshold.

Interestingly, one individual decided to put the “10,000 Hour Rule” to a unique test. In 2010, Dan McLaughlin quit his job at age 30 and decided to start playing golf to see if he could become a professional golfer after 10,000 hours of practice. He also created a website and blog where you can track his progress over time.

However the story of becoming an expert is more than just logging hours. For example, how many times have you found yourself telling students that it’s not just the number of hours they study, but how they study that matters? Much of the work on becoming an expert is by Psychologist K. Anders Erikson, who notes that practice has to be deliberate where you continually work and focus on the areas that you’re not good at. Armed with the knowledge about the importance of engaging in deliberate practice, Dan McLaughlin assembled a team of coaches and advisors (including K. Anders Erikson) who helped him create the “Dan Plan” on how he could best practice and work on improving as he logs his 10,000 hours to learn golf.

So what does this all have to do with master teaching? Let’s return to my opening analogy between race car drivers and teachers. Similar to driving a car, I’ve now been teaching for over 20 years, and I’ve logged many hours along the way. But just logging hours doesn’t mean I’m deliberately practicing or trying to improve how I’m teaching. Therefore I was grateful when I arrived to JMU in 2000 that my JMU colleagues introduced me to a whole new professional organization of the American Psychological Association (The Society of the Teaching of Psychology) dedicated to promoting “deliberate practice” and resources to help faculty become better teachers of psychology. As a result, I now average attending at least one teaching conference a year and routinely read the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) to help me work on becoming a better teacher. But I’m also grateful that since arriving to JMU, I’ve seen the creation of the Center for Faculty Innovation where we don’t have to leave our campus to find a group of dedicated coaches and advisors who can help us create our own version of a “Dan Plan” to become better teachers. Striving to be a master teacher, professional race car driver, or a professional golfer all involve deliberate practice and working on what we’re not good at yet. So, let me close by encouraging you to take the time to check out CFI opportunities at JMU, as well as opportunities available in your discipline, to develop your “Teaching Plan” on how to become a better teacher by deliberately working on what you’re not good at yet.

PS… In case you were wondering, I haven’t taken my friend up on his offer to race a car yet, but I’m now much more willing (and excited) to accept his offer knowing I have a “plan” once I do.

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