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Children and the Structure of Mastery

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Isn’t it a wonderful thing when you witness someone doing something they were just designed to do? Think of masters of their art: musicians, actors, singers, dancers. Or in sports, think of people like Michael Jordan. There seems to be a match between who they are and what they’re doing, such that the lines between the person and the activity get blurred. You stop seeing a person doing something and start seeing a single phenomenon, beautiful in its purity. There’s no part of the art that isn’t engaged by the person and there’s no part of the person that isn’t engaged by the art. They’re doing what they were made to do. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples.

In every case that I can think of, in addition to the aspect of full engagement, another essential element is play, or playfulness. This is sometimes more explicit in the case of improvisational arts. But even in highly structured contexts, such as a pianist performing a piece of classical music or an actress performing her lines, there is so much that can be improvised, if not the notes or the words themselves. The master has a freedom that they’ve built up from their talent and discipline and hard work, such that now it looks effortless, and they can experiment in the moment, playing with possibilities, trying things out, exploring new pathways.

Another aspect: seemingly endless reserves of energy. These performers just keep on going and going. Encore after encore. I have a neighbor who is studying tap dancing in New York City. He was made for his art. I can’t believe how long he can keep dancing in a single evening. His shirt might be drenched with sweat, but he keeps going and going, drawing energy from the enthusiastic crowd.

So how does one reach one’s full potential? How can we help kids have experiences like this? How can we find out what activities, or art forms, or sports, or careers will match up with who they are? More important, how will they find out what fits them, what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at doing?

First off, practice makes perfect. More specifically, if you can create experiences like the above for yourself, you should keep on doing it and let it develop fully into the particularities of who you want to be and what you want to do. If we can identify moments like the above in the lives of children, we should see to it that they keep on with it. They’re on the right path to mastery. They’ve captured the structure of the experience, even if they’re still exploring what details will ultimately work best for them as they approach adulthood.

The question naturally arises: When do you ever see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

Now that I read that question again, it sounds almost silly. When do you not see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy? Left to their own devices, they seem to find that state automatically! I’m sometimes astonished when I watch kids play, at how deeply a given “game” goes. The imagination seems to never run out. “I’ll be the pirate, and you be the dragon!” “How about…we do this…and then you do that…and then I do this…” ad infinitum. The kids energize each other with their ideas. They’re naturals at what adults often forget and have to re-learn in improv class. And they’ll do this all day if you let them. And the play gets more and more sophisticated and complex, and can span multiple days even.

So maybe I’ve got things backwards. Instead of starting with adults who are masters at what they do and then trying to find ways to introduce such experiences to children, maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe the adults are the ones who need to learn from the children!

I suddenly get the sense that the greatest masters of art, the greatest business people, the greatest athletes – they're the ones who have somehow maintained a connection with their childhood. They managed to not lose that youthful energy that’s so characteristic of children. They’re children-at-heart; only the scenery and the materials have changed. They’ve moved on from the playground to the business world, for example, but the structure is the same. They’re still playing and having fun and doing what engages them and what they’re good at.

So here’s my answer: the structure of mastery is no better exemplified than in a child at play. The problem isn’t one of finding out how to help kids be masters. The question instead should be: How do we ensure that kids don’t lose touch with such natural states of being – fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

One way to approach this question is to identify how kids do lose touch with this natural state of being. Or more specifically, identify what we as a society do to contribute to this loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up is by its very nature a loss of childhood. The idea here isn’t to pretend that kids don’t have to grow up or that they should stay kids forever. On the contrary, kids would never allow such a thing. From the moment they’re born, they’re constantly striving to figure out how to function in this world, and as they grow, their drive to become highly functioning adults only grows. We shouldn’t try to work against that drive or try to “keep them children”.

So the question is not: how can we help them remain childlike? Instead, how can we help them become engaged, playful, free adults? And then – once we observe that they are already engaged, playful, and free as children – how can we ensure that they don’t lose that ability as they grow into adulthood?

The simplest answer that I can think of is this: get out of the way. Our society has shown in general that we don’t know how to do this. Instead, we intervene endlessly.

This is nowhere more evident than in that orphan of industrialization we call traditional schooling. We put our kids into environments – for extended periods of time – in which their freedom, and their ability to play and converse with each other, are severely restricted. We tell them what we think is important to learn and thereby devalue anything they might have otherwise been interested in. We act as if they won’t learn or won’t want to learn anything unless we make them do it. It’s incredibly antithetical to and ignorant of the actual nature of children.

Schools are obsolete, but we as a society don’t realize this. We forget, or never realized, that schools were designed by social engineers at the height of the Industrial Revolution to create a docile, massive workforce in which people aren’t burdened by curiosity and instead are satisfied to do exactly as they are told, day in and day out, making widgets or helping machines make widgets.

People are resilient. While school destroys some, most of us get through it okay, and a number of us go on to live happy, fulfilled lives. But my strong suspicion is that we do so in spite of, not because of, our experience of being traditionally schooled, of having our freedom and play severely restricted for large segments of time during our most formative years. We survive; we don’t thrive as we might have. We conform to the contours imposed by the sliced-up world of academic subjects, and we don’t grow into the actual contours of our abilities and interests – the actual contours of our potential.

When I see a person who is a master at their art or craft, I see a person who has grown into the contours of their potential, a person who has either escaped or overcome the cookie-cutter stamp of traditional schooling.

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About evanlenz

  • Nina

    Great article, thank you. I admire your courage to speak out so firmly about an idea our society finds hard to be open to. As a culture we have a death-grip on our belief that kids must be taught x, y, and z or we’re all doomed. Those industrialists did a good job of selling their agenda to the masses! I am sure more and more people will decide to give up on compulsory education, and Sudbury and unschooling will eventually meet with less objection, we just have to be patient and let the outcomes speak for themselves. My oldest is 16, has been at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School for 7 years, and was unschooled previously. He’s never had to study or take tests. He decided he wanted to be a lifeguard for summer employment, took the course and passed all the tests easily! He did it all without reminders or help. He just recently got a 100 on his driver’s permit test after studying on his own for that. No one has ever “taught” him how to read or do arithmetic or how to study for a test, and he is competent in all those things, and is a whiz on computers – especially with Photoshop. All this without formal instruction – entirely by his own motivation and effort. He has demonstrated that he can learn whatever he wants to learn, whether it is on his own or by seeking assistance. We have been underestimating our children in this society for so long that we no longer trust in what is, in fact, natural – kids naturally want to learn and to challenge themselves, unless it has been trained out of them.

  • Hi Bob, thanks for your comments.

    I agree that self-centeredness is not a good thing. Although I have warm feelings about homeschooling (especially “unschooling”), parents have to be careful they don’t lead their kids into thinking that they are the center of the world. That’s one of the reasons I’m so big on Sudbury schools–where kids are not only responsible for their own education, but they’re held accountable to following the rules and being respectful of everyone around them.

    If we apply the same schedule and criteria to all kids, there will clearly be kids who are “behind” in certain skills. But the idea that all kids should learn to read at the same age assumes that they grow at the same pace. Not a good assumption. I blame illiteracy on premature attempts to force kids to read (and the negative psychological impacts such attempts have). You can’t get very far without learning to read (at least in today’s world). Kids are not dumb; they can see that.

    Re: “applying oneself.” There’s a huge difference between applying yourself to something you’re interested in (and see value in) versus applying yourself just because someone told you it’s important. Kids have good BS detectors, but most have succumbed to just swallowing the BS.

  • I think you’re right that schools constrain kids sometimes in undesirable ways, especially in steering them into the acquisition of skills that are deemed important for work. Unfortunately, they really are important for work. Literacy and numeracy are essential, not something we can assume kids will pick up for themselves. It is more than likely that these essential skills won’t compete for attention successfully with the exercise of play.

    I’ve seen, and taught, kids who have been through a very free, play-centred, education and they were several years behind in literacy and numeracy, so wilful that they couldn’t apply themselves to anything for more than a few minutes, and so self-centred that they always put themselves first.

    So you’re right that we need to channel that inventiveness and creativity, but we also have to temper it with the acquisition of basic skills. One damaging aspect of education that I’ve seen is the relatively arbitrary division of kids into studying either arts or sciences, branding the kids creative or logical from an early age. That arbitrary separation of mental activity is damaging for the kids and limits what they might feel able to do.

    Excellent article, very thought-provoking.