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Mastery is the Goal at Wonder

By Zach Lahn on March 23, 2022

Many schools make “excellence” a goal. Those who score a 100 on the test are “excellent” and get a gold star. This means those who fail are something less than excellent. But heroes fail to reach their goals all the time. It’s failure – having the courage to risk being knocked down and getting back up again — that makes the hero, not excellence itself.

Our goal is to make the process of mastery a deeply ingrained habit in our children’s life. In his classic book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard describes the four keys to mastery: Instruction, Practice, Surrender, Intentionality and The Edge. He encourages us to stop “dabbling, obsessing or hacking.” It is difficult to understand what we all hope to build at Wonder without making this book a part of your life.

If we make learning mostly about excellence and “winners” and “losers,” we encourage children to become dabblers, quick fix artists who move from one dalliance to another. If we make mastery a deeply ingrained habit, excellence is a natural byproduct, as hard work makes a difficult skill look easy to the average mortal.

Masters pursue a goal for something much deeper than the cheap thrill of beating someone else.

Masters know not to put too much emphasis on early success, because surely these early successes will soon become a plateau, a difficult period where intense effort is required to break through to another level of skill.

Masters know that it is in the “dip,” when the difficult emotional feeling of “being stuck” is very real that perseverance forges deeper skills and habits, and character is formed.

Masters know that true learning is maintaining the “beginner’s mind,” so that once you reach a level of mastery, you have a deep appreciation not of the answers, but of the questions. And even more importantly, you want to pass along these questions to someone else.

This is yet another reason our goal at Wonder is to make each of us a Guide, something far different than a traditional teacher. Traditional teachers want to become experts so they can be the “smartest person in the room.” Guides work hard so that they can become masters, so they can quietly ask a question that not only changes the debate and paradigm, but often changes a life.

Make no mistake about it, mastery doesn’t make failure easy. There still will be failure and tears. Why are tears necessary? Because the stakes are high, and failure is difficult and plateaus will never be easy or fun.

The stakes should matter because the work of “soul forming,” is much more important than sorting winners and losers – it’s the difficult and important task of our children becoming who they are meant to be.

So when the tears come, remember that the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children tells us to praise effort and not achievement. Remember that our quest as parents is more about forming character than celebrating report cards.

Then hopefully the words of Robert Browning will remind us of why trying and failing is such an important part of our Hero’s Journey: “A man’s reach should exceed this grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”

[Blogs or portion of blogs may be adapted from the blog of our partner school founder and advisor, Laura Sandefer.]