8. The Design Down and Deliver Up Mindset: Taking Mastery Seriously

The expertise of those who perform essential and valued work in society are never thought of as being mediocre. People we depend on for our health, safety, and wellbeing. Medical doctors, commercial pilots, cruise ship captains. Others.

We assume they were all taught to mastery. A mastery equated with exemplary performance. A mastery so pervasive it is carried into ongoing professional work.

Sometimes we learn that was just wishful thinking. And pay a heavy price for our misplaced trust.

Agencies attempt to regulate that possibility through accreditation, certification, licensing, managerial oversight, inspections, testing, and a myriad of other ways to ensure that mastery is authentic.

But, as important as external evaluation is, nothing is better than exceptionality as recognized by those who are learners and people who hire them. By men and women who are clients, patients and students. By subordinates, colleagues, associates, and protégés.

And known intuitively by the contributions they make every day. Recognized as being conscientious, mindful of others, carefully analytical, and almost sagaciously accurate.

True mastery, as a teacher or student, is achieved via both emotional and intellectual engagement. People who master something really care about it. They hone their skills for the purpose of becoming more precise and accountable.

What they do means something to them. It is not simply a job or hobby. They never just go through “the motions.” They are fully engrossed and fascinated. And constantly try to do better.

Those are the kinds of people who will support the new learning infrastructure as teachers. Teachers who inspire their students to be the same way.

The adage, “good teachers are born, not made” is nonsense. Human beings have the capacity to be both good learners and teachers. With few exceptions, nurture is capable of overcoming nature. With much depending on the quality of the “nurture.”

The quality of nurture is dependent on caring, determination, and precision in how the academic environment is developed and maintained over time. Mastery statements are the intentions. Making those intentions into a program of studies that inspires and uplifts students is the next step.

Creating a curriculum and instructional process that are precise and sensitive, as well as accurate and stimulating.

Mary Chapman’s Story – Part 6

Going through the intense process of creating AND defending a grade level mastery statement in science was one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. To be criticized by my professors and fellow students was hard to take.

But it began to change me.

Introspection is agonizing and working through how to overcome shortcomings is no fun. Oddly, though, I began to see through my dismay and realize a potential never felt before. There was something about the discomfort I experienced that told me much about myself.

My professors and fellow students were not threatening me in some negative way. They were telling me I can meet a challenge. And will do it better next time.

Maybe that is what real learning is. Being pinned to the wall by criticisms and coming out of the experience a little stronger. Smarter. More resilient.

More willing to take future chances and grow from them.

My fellow students were forced to go through the same drill. And it was my turn to professionally criticize the people who wrote mastery statements for their courses in math, language arts, social studies, and others. 

I realized what was happening to all of us. We were beginning to understand school is not just about discrete subjects. But that all subjects, when considered holistically, are part of each other. Science needs language arts, math needs social studies. And beyond.

That the real world is not divided into subjects. Everything is intertwined and mutually inclusive, and we teachers must recognize that school is just one way to make our society better. Through helping our students be open to new ideas and inspiring them to become significant contributors.


We finally finished work on the mastery statements. At the district level, for each major subject, and for the course/grade level in which we would possibly teach. But our professors said that was just the beginning.

Now it was time to take “design down and deliver up seriously.” After being thoroughly worked over by my professors and fellow teacher education students, my course subject area mastery statement was reworked.

It was agreed that my primary goal was okay, so long as it was integrated with similar goals in grades before and after mine. A biographical focus. With the goal of causing students to believe people who think and act like scientists make a difference.  

In later years, after taking the public-school job, COVID made all of us more sensitive to that principle. Even those of us not directly involved with science can understand that its practice, and our sensitivity to it, improves or saves lives.

So far, so good.

The defense of my statement was not ripped to shreds but jolted me into a serious reality. The most significant related to scope. One of those who attacked my statement joked about a fictitious essay question he once saw: Describe the universe and give three examples.

He said he counted eight parts of my course, all of which needed to be taught and learned to mastery. That fellow student and others asked me to describe what mastery looked like for each of the eight elements listed. “Just tell us what you are looking for in the first one.” It has two verbs you are measuring, a student’s ability to “define” and “explain.”

Whoa!  I said the “define” gets into what scholarship is.

Okay. “What is scholarship?” I fumbled around a little on that one but finally came up with something like “systematic study.” Not good enough!

This was getting ugly. I said, “scientists are good at developing and testing hypotheses.” I knew what was coming next. “What is a hypothesis and why is its use the best way to study?”  


“A hypothesis is an educated guess. An educated guess is a theory derived from reading and earlier experiments. A kind of pre-research type of research.”

That satisfied the student for a minute or two.

Then another student asked about my “explain” part. “Why is that the best way to study?” I felt ready for that one, because just reading or listening to garner knowledge does not engage the brain. New information does not connect to anything that already resides there. It is like the adage that learning does not occur if answers are provided for which there are no questions.

The development of a hypothesis must come from an “intellectual itch that must be scratched.” Like, “What caused the Civil War?”  “What motivated Thoreau to write Walden Pond? “Why is a knowledge of algebra important in statistical analysis?”

Then the second student hit me with more serious questions. She wanted to know what that piece of the course had to do with the idea scientists make a difference.

Easy. Because they speak and write about their work. Their findings. They interact with others who want or need to know. Something all of us should be willing to do, usually on a smaller stage.

Then came the zinger. “Let us say your students respond to your insistence they define and explain. And can do that both orally and in writing. How much classroom or virtual instruction time will that take for 25 students in a class? How will you know EVERY student has mastered that element of the statement?”

“Will mastery entail just quick and simple answers. Or will it necessitate students giving examples from history or real life? Will you ask them how that new knowledge will be used by them in the future?”

And how much of the 165-clock hour pie (in a standard or virtual classroom) will that require if you have 25 students in the class? Five hours? Ten?

And what are your thoughts about how skills learned in that first element of the course should be reinforced throughout the remainder of the school year?

That kind of pickiness annoyed me at first, but I later learned how important it is to have answers to questions like that. “The devil is in the details,” and all those questions and more would need to be answered when the curriculum and instructional design were created.

I must admit there were times I wanted to scream, “this is just school guys, not a PhD program!” But our professors headed us off at the pass when those feelings percolated up. They said the new learning infrastructure was no longer “just school,” a place and time when we simply introduced stuff. Stuff that could be forgotten later. And no one thinks is important anyhow.

With those confrontations behind me, and what I learned from them, I was ready to get serious about the “design down and deliver up” part.

The curriculum.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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