Life Long Learner or Life Long Trier?

 Practice what you preach: Mastery in Learning

We expect all learners to master what they are exploring or studying and to have the desire to ‘go deep’ with their learning. Frustrations are echoed in classrooms across the world with teachers gripes and groans about learners doing the bare minimum to pass the test, get the credits or avoid a rewrite. 

What do we as teachers do to encourage deeper learning?

Let’s be honest I am sure we have all been guilty of teaching to the test at one time or another in our careers as a way of getting ‘the system’ off our back. We are time poor and are always complaining that there is not enough time to explore or extend our learners due to the bell, end of term or pressure to move onto the next thing as we ram more average information into learners heads. We desire to have the time to sit, be curious and wonder ‘what if…’ or ‘what next…’ but when was the last time you did this yourself with your learning.


I give you a personal example I call myself a musician, my house is full of musical instruments that I can play and when asked ‘what do you play?’ my response ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. This is my justification for why I have never ‘gone deep’ on any instrument…until the drums.

Can’t be that hard can it? You listen to a song and hit the drums in time. I was directed to lessons with a somewhat hidden treasure that is lurking in the Christchurch music scene as an internationally recognised musician and tutor of percussion. In my first lesson with Doug Brush about 4 years ago I told him that I wanted to learn to play a certain song, we still haven’t got to that song as he is still teaching me the alphabet of drumming. Once I have all the pieces of the puzzle, all the techniques, basic skills and can put them altogether I can play any song. We all know this when we start teaching toddlers the alphabet, we are dead keen to get them to write their name and master a handful of letters, but we make sure they go to school with some idea of the whole alphabet under their belt. I am now learning how to learn as a percussion player, this is something no other music tutor taught me. Not their fault as they were always ‘teaching to the test’ preparing me for an up and coming performance or exam. This is what we expect from our specialist music teachers then wonder why they aren’t able to go deep.

Mastery of learning in any area suggests that if the appropriate learning conditions are there it will happen. My learning conditions: For 15 years I have worked in music departments with drum kits & itinerant percussion specialists & worked with learners at varying levels. I would look at the kit, ask questions of the visiting tutors. I would buy the books with songs to learn, I would wonder why my senior music students would not “practice” but merely play through their songs and call it practice.

For many of the instruments I have learnt in recent years – guitar, voice, trumpet, drums – the reason for me taking an interest is to learn what techniques apply to this instrument so I can effectively and authentically grade the learners for NCEA. Another reason is so I can put myself in the shoes of my learners and to see just how hard it might be on their instrument. I soon learnt that power chords on a guitar were in fact an easy way out for the young learner playing Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ (standard repertoire for any year 11 bass, guitar or drummer all 5min 32secs of it). I was expecting the learners to have the skills to master their instrument and learn the alphabet of their instrument, but we were time poor and the desire to master the instrument wasn’t always there. In the end overall it was about the credits.

Mastery also suggests that a learner has more than one try at something. Well I’ve had a few tries and this is what leads me to being ‘jack of all trades’ (The Ralph family motto, what does that tell you? that’s a whole other can of worms!). Also mastery suggests the end or completion of something, but we know learning is never finished. We should really look at mastery as building upon skills this is the way SOLO taxonomy supports learning and the drive to go deeper and explore more.


Daniel Goleman discusses the 10,000 hours myth in his book Focus: The Driver of Hidden Excellence. (which has taken me about 3 months to read, don’t get me wrong it’s a good book, I just lack what it is about!). Goleman discusses quality of time spent on something and not just quantity. In relation to music I see this as practise vs playing, so many of my learners over the years have claimed to have practised for hours in a week when in fact they have played. This is also good practice but if you want to get better it is quality over quantity. I once worked in a private school in the UK where a Cellist would practice for hours. It was a very quiet practice session for the most part as he spent hours lying on the floor stretching and getting his body ready before he even touched the cello. This was proper practice. This is playing drills, learning scales, considering your posture, listening to your instrument before you crunch and crash through the song.

The next steps for my learning here is to consider how my current learners are learning rather than doing or being busy. If we want to grow life long learners who can master a skill and be willing to take a few side steps or pause we need to give them time. Make time, we have time.

Thanks to my car pool buddy Rob Ferguson for the conversation that lead to this post and got me thinking I need to pull finger and stop being jack. I’m off to practice now…or will I just play?

(practice or practise…who knows!)