An Interview with James Gardner: Transmission of Mastery

Apr 14, 2020 by

James GARDNER | Juris Doctor | University at Buffalo, The State ...
James Gardner

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. In one of your recent papers, you discussed the “transmission of mastery.” What brought this about and why is it important?

The paper grew out of a twenty-year conversation I’ve been having with a colleague about teaching law, which is my field. For some time, it has been fashionable to pooh-pooh the idea of education as the transmission of knowledge, and perhaps that is correct; but even so, it seems to me that mastery stands on a different footing. A legal education is much more than a lengthy bout of knowledge-stuffing; it is a type of training in which, in principle, masters of the craft and practice of law train the novice to do what they do, and to do it as skillfully and mindfully as possible B ultimately, to become masters of the practice themselves. In my view, it is accurate and normatively desirable to think of this as the transmission of mastery.

Is this enterprise important? Perhaps not. It is entirely possible that mastery itself B of law or of any other domain is unimportant, and so its transmission from master to novice is unimportant, or at least not worth the cost. But to say this is to say that certain forms of human excellence are unimportant. That may be true. It seems to me that the world would not be worse off if mastery of skateboarding, for example, disappeared from the stock of human knowledge, but undoubtedly some would disagree. There is no way to make such a decision, other than to say that a world containing masters of certain domains and practices is a better world than one without them, but there is no way to prove or disprove such a contention. I happen to believe that law is a noble profession, and that those who master legal practice can live good, useful lives, and can help others in significant ways.

2. In a sense, why are only masters capable of judging real mastery? I would not be capable of judging the chess acumen of the Grandmasters of chess, for example.

This is an axiom, really, so the challenge here is illustrating why it must be true. Typically, an axiom is something we know intuitively, but can’t prove within our own system of beliefs. How can I judge the mastery of another if I am not myself a master? If I am not a master of a practice, I don’t know what masters of that practice know, and it is impossible to evaluate the mastery demonstrated by another without that kind of knowledge.

Certainly, I might appreciate or enjoy in the role of spectator the mastery of others or what I take, in my ignorance and uncertainty, to be their mastery; or what I accept, in deference to a widespread social consensus, to be their mastery. Thus, I appreciate and enjoy what society deems to be the cello mastery of Yo-Yo Ma, or the tennis mastery of Roger Federer, but that is very different from meaningful evaluation, which I could never provide, because evaluation of mastery is possible only from the vantage point of mastery itself.

Or to put it differently, assessment of mastery is a practice internal to mastery; it is not something that can be done from outside.

Think about mastery of even a seemingly mundane and quotidian practice mowing the lawn, for example. If an experienced landscaper whose opinion you respected told you that one of his employees was truly a master of lawnmowing, would you be able to affirm or deny his evaluation? What distinguishes the master mower of lawns from a mere journeyman? I have no idea, and neither do you.

3. I would not be so bold to indicate that I am a master of any discipline and while I am somewhat known in the field, I am by no means in the top echelon. So why is it that we have a lot of people running around evaluating others when they really have no expertise or competence in a certain field?

I don’t think that recognition of mastery need be confined to the very top masters. Mastery can describe a range of excellences. If it is not implausible to distinguish, as chess does, between masters and grandmasters, then such a distinction is plausible in other domains as well.

4. In terms of any subject matter, you write, “virtually nothing can be said a priori about the content of mastery in any domain.” Why is this so?

The point is not that nothing can be said about mastery of some kind or other; clearly, much can be said, most of all by masters themselves. The point is, rather, that nothing can be said a priori about the content of mastery of any particular domain. That is, someone who lacks mastery of a domain cannot sit in his armchair and speculatively rattle off a list of things of which mastery in that domain must consist. Or, to be more precise, no non-master can produce a catalogue of things of which mastery consists without pitching them at such a high level of abstraction as to be completely useless.

For example, I don’t play golf. Can I nevertheless describe the content of golf mastery? I cannot; I have no idea what the elements of golf mastery might include. I could say, nevertheless, that mastery of golf requires “mastery of putting,” and “ a mastery of driving,” and “mastery of golf tactics,” and so forth, but that is merely to describe the elements of mastery tautologically; it is to say nothing more than that a master must be a master of that which he has mastered. To possess mastery is necessarily to be very far along in a certain kind of journey. Those who haven’t made the journey don’t know of what the journey consists. They can speculate, but they cannot know.

It is also to say, to be more concrete, that educational bureaucrats and regulators are incapable of describing and subsequently prescribing the content of mastery, unless they happen to be masters themselves of the domains in question. To describe, much less to prescribe, would require considerable guidance from masters. Perhaps they in fact receive such guidance.

5. In any field of endeavor, can its contests be really fully articulated, even by masters?

No, for several reasons. First, mastery itself is highly variable. Even within a single domain, there is no fixed set of attributes that comprise mastery. Rather, mastery is more like a portfolio of knowledge, skills, and attributes that may be held in different combinations, provided that the total value of the portfolio, so to speak, surpasses some threshold. As a result, the content of mastery can differ from master to master and may even be contested among masters who hold different kinds of portfolios, or who simply hold different conceptions of the practice of which they are acknowledged to be masters.

Second, mastery is a continuous journey, not a destination. As a master=s mastery increases, the content of his mastery necessarily changes and evolves. Moreover, masters, like other humans, change over time. Insight may arrive, even to masters, at any time. My own belief is that insight arrives whenever a person adventitiously becomes ready to receive it, and that different kinds of insight thus arrive at different chronological ages and following the accumulation of different kinds of life experiences. Yet a late-arriving insight does not impugn the truth or value of earlier-arriving insights; it merely underscores the fundamental fluidity of mastery, which is, after all, a human condition.

Third, mastery is by definition contextually responsive, so what counts as a masterful performance may change over time, as external conditions change. I have taught Constitutional Law for thirty years, and in that course , I always try to teach my students how to construct and deliver good constitutional arguments. But what counted as good constitutional advocacy when I started, in the age of Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, no longer counted as good advocacy later, in the age of Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, much less in the age of Roberts, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Thus, the content and methods of masterful constitutional argument evolve, as does mastery of the art of constitutional advocacy.

6. The big question B what methods are most effective in terms of transmitting mastery of, say, medicine or dentistry, or even law?

I think this question is impossible to answer as asked because it is both acontextual and a priori. Teaching never occurs outside of an actual context B that is, teaching is always of something, and it is applied to actual students by a particular teacher, in a particular way, at a particular time. The inherently contextual nature of all teaching provides the key. In my judgment, good teaching consists irreducibly of three things: (1) diagnosis, (2) treatment, and (3) trial and error.

When a teacher is actually “teaching”, as opposed to just talking at students, or unilaterally broadcasting online in their general direction, the teacher is necessarily actively observing the response of the students (individually and collectively) and, if something is going less well than hoped, diagnosing the causes. Once a diagnosis is reached, the teacher must administer a treatment suitable to address the deficiency. Although experience can, without doubt, help teachers predict, diagnose, and treat student problems of learning and mastery, there are limits to how far past experience can guide present requirements.

For this reason, I view teaching as an ongoing “indeed, never-ending” process of trial and error. That is, the teacher must constantly assess the nature of the obstacles encountered by the students and apply different kinds of treatments to determine the right one, which inevitably will differ from student to student and, over time, from cohort to cohort. When a treatment is ineffective, another must be attempted, or perhaps the initial diagnosis must be reconsidered and revised. The process of trial and error, however, never ends.

This helps explain, incidentally, primary and secondary school districts are constantly adopting and discarding programs. No program of education is or can be “the best” for all time, for all teachers, for all students, or for all circumstances. It also helps explain why only a master can transmit mastery. Anyone stuck in front of a classroom can use trial and error to teach, but a master=s trial and error is informed by domain-specific mastery itself, and by the judgment and experience that accompany it. Indeed, a master who fails constantly to employ methods of trial and error becomes stale, and mastery that is static decays. Thus, the apogee of good teaching is precisely informed, experienced trial and error tailored to the immediate needs of individual students who are immediately present before the master.

7. Some believe that true robust evaluation is via inter-rater reliability , having 2 or 3 masters agree on a Likert Scale or some form. Am I off on this?

You are correct, many people hold such a belief. Its validity, however, depends entirely on the context to which it is applied. The question seems to be whether variability in the judgment of those evaluating student performance is evidence of some kind of problem requiring a solution.

In the case of transmission of mastery by masters, variability in judgment from master to master, or even in the judgment of the same master from one time period to another, does not indicate a problem. Mastery, as I have already indicated, is not a steady state. First and foremost, masters are human. Human judgment is variable. So what? No human being can apply precisely the same standards in precisely the same way in every set of circumstances, over and over and over again. Yet the judgment of humans is the only possible metric of the achievement of novices. Second, true mastery itself inevitably evolves as the master himself continues to acquire new knowledge and experiences “mastery is a journey, not a destination” so that different students who appear before the master at different times will inevitably receive slightly different instruction and slightly different evaluation by slightly different criteria. There is no alternative. What is necessary, and all that is necessary, is that a master apply his/her judgment to the performance of a student period.

However, the variability inherent in human judgment goes a long way toward demonstrating why the best way to evaluate students is (1) by consensus (2) over a long period of time. Since mastery itself can most reliably be identified and acknowledged by consensus among experts employing the conventions of their field, the same is true of evaluating the performance of novices. Thus, the overall judgment of an entire faculty over the course of a student=s academic career, expressed in a transcript, is by far the best way to provide an accurate evaluation of the student’s level of mastery.

I am inclined to think, moreover, that when students are subjected to the judgment of many masters over long periods of time, it matters very little what method or standards of evaluation are used everything will even out in the long run; the student’s progress will be accurately gauged. Indeed, over decades of experimentation with different forms of examination and evaluation, I have found exactly this: regardless of the format, the students almost invariably manage to distribute themselves normally, with the best students at the top and the worst at the bottom.

There is, however, one context where social science concepts of validity and reliability might have some purchase: where the teachers are not themselves masters; where, not being masters themselves, they do not claim to transmit mastery to their students; and where the aim of the educational enterprise itself is something other than transmitting mastery transmitting basic competence, for example. This seems to me a reasonably fair description of most K-12 education. Consequently, measurements of consistency and reliability may be useful managerial tools for primary and secondary education, where the performance of non-masters, who lack the judgment of masters, must be coordinated. In a university setting, however, the concept is fundamentally misguided.

8. Is there any such thing as “mastery of teaching”? What about mastery of teaching calculus?

There is no such thing as mastery of “teaching”; there is only such a thing as mastery of teaching something. A teacher who gains mastery of teaching calculus cannot be expected to walk into a history class, or even a geometry class, and teach the subject masterfully. To teach masterfully, in the sense necessary to transmit mastery, one must possess mastery over the domain to be taught. People who claim otherwise remind me of a wonderful vaudeville comedian who called himself “Professor Irwin Corey, The World’s Foremost Authority.” It was a funny act.

9. Currently there seems to be a modern move toward standardized curriculum, and delivery via PowerPoint and assessment based on the good old multiple choice test. What do you see as the long-term ramifications and repercussions of this?

Let’s think about this: in what circumstances is it desirable that something be standardized”? The answer seems to be when it is something destined to be mass-produced. Where we seem to be headed as a society is toward a reconceptualization of education as the mass production of basic competence, in all domains. Mastery is out; it’s too expensive, and too time-consuming, and perhaps not worth transmitting in the first place. Or perhaps mastery is simply recategorized as a luxury item, destined to be passed on only to those who can pay. The rest get basic competence, delivered as cheaply as possible. As I said earlier, one may regret this, but there is no way to refute its reasonableness as a social goal. I personally regret it, as do many of my colleagues.

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