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Topic: optimal challenge

Five Steps to True Mastery

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Have you ever taken a math test you felt completely confident about, only to find out that you bombed it and you weren’t prepared at all?

Trust me, you’re not alone. But why does this happen so frequently?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And this is what I’ve realized.

True mastery takes more than one step. But I’ve never seen these steps discussed before like this.

And I definitely didn’t hear about this when I was in math classes growing up!

This is what I had to figure out all by myself, and now do in all of my one-on-one work with my own clients.

Let me break it down for you:

1. The first level of mastery: you can follow along passively when someone else is explaining a concept to you or demonstrating how to do a technique.

You aren’t actively participating, you’re just observing and listening, and what they’re saying makes sense.

2. The second level of mastery: you can do problems interactively with someone else.

You are actively participating as they walk you through the steps of the problem and you do it together.

3. The third level of mastery: you successfully complete a similar problem type completely independently and get the answer correct – and you understand why – without any guidance or corrections from someone else.

4. The fourth level of mastery:
you consistently get the answer right on enough similar problems that the concepts get internalized and the process becomes automated.

You have the track record that shows you that you really are prepared to go in and do this successfully on a quiz, test, or exam.

5. BONUS: The fifth level of mastery: you understand the concept and technique so well that you can easily and confidently teach someone else how to do it. When you get to this level, you know that you’ve REALLY got it!

Until you get to the point where you have at least “level four mastery” and consistently get the answer correct on problems of a similar type (and understand why), you aren’t really prepared.

For example, a student will passively understand someone else’s demonstration and think, “Great! I got it! I am ready to rock this test!” However, that is only level 1 mastery. Just because you can follow along with someone’s demonstration of how to bake muffins from scratch doesn’t mean your own muffins will taste good. Watching someone else do it is ONLY the first step.

Another place where major problems can happen is when students think, “Great! I did two of these problem types correctly and I understand them. I am ready to get an A!” That is like getting the basketball in the net twice and thinking that you’re ready to win the next game. It takes consistent training and practice to get consistent results.

Do you wish you knew exactly to do to get consistently awesome results in math?

Are you tired of doing everything you know to help your daughter or son prepare for math tests, only to experience soul-crushing defeat time after time?

Are you ready to invest in high-level, one-on-one, super-customized support that is not typical tutoring?

Then click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to explore whether or not the way I work would be a good fit for you!

I can’t wait to connect!

Related posts:
On Optimal Challenge
Need to remember something important? Breaking news!
“It’s eraser time!” (And other math mantras)
“Interesting,” not “Complicated” (Math Mantras Part 2)

Topic: optimal challenge

The secret ingredients of true math mastery

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Rebecca Zook i

That’s me – playing my cello in Central Park!

When I tell people that I have two parallel, seemingly unrelated careers – one as a math mastery mentor/joyful learning expert, and the other as a bad-ass cello diva and pioneering performer – it’s not uncommon for their eyes to light up and for them to exclaim, “OF COURSE! Math and music are SO connected! That makes so much sense. It’s normal if you’re good at one to be good at the other!”

But… to be totally honest… the ways I experience math and music, they’re so, so different from each other. And I spent a LOT of my life in environments where I didn’t think I was “good at” either of them.

So it took me a while to realize the connection between the two.

The way I LEARN music and the way I LEARN math? It’s the exact same process.

And it’s the exact same process I guide my students through.

And this mastery process is REALLY different from almost all of my formal math education and musical training, which involved a lot of:

bludgeoning yourself with the material until your eyes glaze over
overloading your brain
incredible frustration
constantly overworking
hating yourself
trying to be perfect
relying exclusively on analysis, verbalization, and intellectualization
trying to meet someone else’s pace
stumbling through it even though you didn’t really get it
not even realizing how disconnected you were from the material because you were just superficially “learning” everything
feeling fundamentally flawed and ashamed
worrying that “I don’t have what it takes”

Suffice it to say, this approach did not work for me!!! And I’ve found it doesn’t work for my students either.

However, I have discovered a process that actually DOES work for me – and for my math students.

And it’s sooooo different from what I just described.

It’s like a completely different mindset.

It’s so different that I actually named it.


Here are the elements of a MASTERY MINDSET:

First. Adopt a growth mindset. Believe (or, if that seems impossible, you can just start with being willing to consider the possibility) that what you’re trying to do is not about talent. Whether it’s math or music, it can be mastered with incremental, deliberate, and persistent effort.

Second. Have a FLOW orientation.
What I mean by this is, you want to stay in the “sweet spot” between being bored (it’s too easy) and being overwhelmed (it’s too hard). If you’re bored or anxious, nothing’s wrong with you – you just need to adjust what you’re doing so it’s harder or easier, as necessary.

Third. Incrementalization. Just take a sweet little morsel of material at a time. Just one little piece. Practice it until it becomes internalized, automatic. Until it becomes part of your body, part of your being. Then add a little chunk onto that. Continue this slow and steady process and you will find you are extremely prepared.

As an example, the way I used to learn music, I’d sit for hours in front of a music stand playing a piece from the printed music. Trying to figure out the tricky parts with my mind. So much mental effort, so much time, but it didn’t result in true security or true mastery. Covering the score in instructions and sticky notes. I listen to recordings from that period in my life and I can literally hear myself worrying.

Now, I don’t use a music stand or try to learn a big chunk at a time. I put the music on the floor, and I’ll lean over and play just a measure or two. Then I’ll practice just that, only looking at the music when I need to, until it’s automatic.

Then, when I’m away from the music and my instrument, I visualize the physical motions of playing that little chunk. The next day, when I’m back at my instrument, I check that that little bit is still internalized, and then I’ll add a little bit on.

If there’s a tricky part, I let my body find a solution with its own experiments. If a solution doesn’t come right away, I don’t freak out about it or try to force anything. I just trust that over time a way to do it beautifully will emerge from continuing to engage.

While it might seem “slower,” it results in deep, unshakeable preparation, and performances full of power and conviction. And, in the end, I’ve found I learn the material WAY faster.

Fourth. Let it be pleasurable. This might sound crazy, but there’s an additional piece I think is necessary to a mastery mindset: deciding to let it be pleasurable.

For one thing, the first three things – having a growth mindset, a flow orientation, and incrementalizing all create an intrinsically enjoyable learning experience.

And, additionally, I have found that deciding to do things in a way that is deliberately pleasurable creates deeper learning and also gently feeds your own enthusiasm.

This is great way to keep yourself from reverting to old “non-mastery” conditioning of overloading yourself, overworking, or trying to match someone else’s pace.

If you find yourself start to go into that, stop. Ask yourself, how can I do this in a way that is pleasurable?

Deciding to let my learning be pleasurable has completely supercharged my musical ability and my performances, and completely changed my experience of learning math. Like, I no longer allow myself to do the old things that didn’t work, because “this is not pleasurable” is a giant red flag that I am reverting to old patterns.

All of the energy that was going into the stuff that doesn’t work (slaving, bludgeoning yourself, hating on yourself, feeling like you don’t have what it takes) can be released. When it doesn’t suck anymore, all of that energy you spent on resisting doing it because it sucked is now freed up for you to actually learn, and enjoy what you’re learning.

Fifth. You become a mastery-seeking person. Once you experience true mastery, you no longer want to settle for “just getting through it” or going through the motions or having something finished to turn in. Now that you’ve tasted what it’s like to really, deeply internalize something, you start to seek that in all of your learning experiences.

Would you like your passionate, creative kid to be mentored in developing their own mastery mindset with math and with life?

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to explore whether my magical one-on-one math tutoring programs are a fit for you and your family!

Related posts:
Don’t back down
What changes when someone believes in you?
I just can’t keep this a secret any longer
Do you wish your kid could feel like Albert Einstein?

Topic: optimal challenge

“Interesting,” not “complicated” (Math Mantras, part 2)

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about re-framing. Along the lines of “eraser time,” and “when in doubt, write it out,” another way I’ve found helps my students to approach a more complex problem with courage and even a sense of playfulness is saying the simple phrase, “This looks… interesting,” with a little friendly smile.

Why does this work? So many times when kids hit a problem that looks weird to them, they just stop and give up, thinking, I don’t recognize this, I don’t know how to do this, no one has taught me this yet! I will just wait, or close my book and go do something else, or hope this problem disappears! But frequently, those problems are just one little step, one small stretch, beyond what they have just done.

“This looks…interesting” opens up a space where it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to do–a place where you can explore. A zone where you can spread out and think about what might work or what you could try. It neutralizes the subconscious tendency to freak out. It’s like you’re an archeologist discovering a beautiful, mysterious artifact whose purpose is unknown. Instead of thinking, “I don’t know what to do with this crazy thing!” you can welcome the process of puzzling out how it might work.

I’ve found that if I do this enough, it’s one of those phrases that my students repeat back to me, unprompted. If we’re talking about the complicated problems as though they are “interesting” instead (even if inside, they might be saying, “this looks scary/impossible”), eventually they start doing this on their own.

And it’s not just a trick–it’s also true. Part of the process of mastery is that what was once impossible becomes familiar. And what is familiar is no longer challenging. And eventually, what is familiar becomes downright boring.

So to stay in the magic space between frustration and boredom, where the problem is perfectly matched to our abilities to stretch us just one step beyond what we already have done, we need to kick it up a notch so we don’t get bored. So we can grow. And so we can enjoy.

Related posts:
It’s eraser time! (And other math mantras)
On Optimal Challenge
How to help kids be OK with things being hard

Topic: optimal challenge

When should a teacher recommend a tutor?

Monday, April 4th, 2011

No classroom experience can meet every individual student’s needs at all times. Though teachers use a variety of approaches to reach different students and give them multiple chances to “get” the material, sometimes a student’s needs are so particular that a teacher just can’t address them in a crowded classroom.

Recommending a student work with a tutor can allow you to leverage your own expertise. You tell the tutor what you’ve noticed the kid needs to spend more time on. The tutor works with your student to help them internalize material and prepare for tests.

During the process, the tutor will share their observations about your student—information which may help you in your classroom interactions. And this kind of open and specific communication between you and the tutor will make a huge difference for your student.

Good tutors work with you as a team to accelerate and amplify what you’re already doing in your classroom. And while some teachers fear that a tutor will do their student’s work for them, a good tutor will encourage your student to take ownership of their work using specific, explicit strategies.

Here are some suggestions on when a teacher should recommend that a student get a tutor.

The student has major gaps in knowledge.

Maybe a student missed a couple years of math because they went to a bilingual school and were supposed to learn fractions in French. Maybe a student shows up in your Algebra 2 class having never learned long division because they went to a school where they were supposed to “figure it out themselves.”

When a student struggles with major gaps in material from previous grade levels that other students have down cold, a tutor can give a student the opportunity to really learn the foundational material.

Moreover, a student who might never admit to their official teacher how much they don’t know might feel comfortable sharing their problems with their tutor. The tutor can discreetly pass that information on to you, and you can use it to make the most of your classroom interactions with your student.

The student needs more one-on-one time.

If a student doesn’t have a lot of gaps in their prerequisite knowledge but they’re still struggling to keep up with the pace of the class, working with a tutor can be beneficial.

Tutoring can be a safe space for a student to ask more questions than they might want to admit they have in front of their peers. Also, one-on-one tutoring can allow your student time to drill or explore something as much as they need, instead of feeling like they have to “get it” right away.

More one-on-one time has another benefit. Often, when a student gets customized instruction from a tutor, they start to understand how they learn best and become more active learners both in and out of the classroom.

A student needs more differentiated instruction than can be provided in the classroom.

Maybe you already have a strong sense of your student’s learning style, but it’s hard to meet their needs in the classroom. Perhaps you’ve got a student with a diagnosed learning issue or disability, or a student who just marches to a completely different drummer. Maybe they need to experience the concepts in a way that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else in the class.

A good tutor can provide a completely differentiated learning experience, customizing their instruction to the individual student.

For example, a kid who feels pressured by flashcards might do a great job learning his multiplication facts by building squares and rectangles out of Legos. An ADHD kid who struggles to sit through a whole class period might thrive with a tutor who takes frequent breaks to shoot hoops. A dyslexic kid who’s overwhelmed by FOILing binomials might master the technique using a more visual box method.

When a tutor is successfully customizing your student’s learning experience, that student will be able to more effectively participate, contribute, and succeed in your classroom.

Tutoring boomerangs back to your classroom

An example: recently, I started working with a new tutoring student who, at the outset, was disinterested in learning math. But after a few weeks together, she started engaging more in her own learning. She spontaneously made up new lyrics to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” to help herself remember that numbers that end in zero are even. A few weeks later, I heard that she was so engaged in trying to answer questions in math class that her teacher remarked, “I think I see a mathematician!”—referring to this same previously disengaged student!

The best kind of tutoring—the kind where you, your student, and the tutor are all communicating openly—can help kids transform. These students become more active self-advocates for their own learning. They participate more, engage more, and ask more questions in the classroom.

When a frustrated or overwhelmed student renews their love of math in part because of the tutoring experience you’ve helped them co-create, they’ll probably bring that new enthusiasm and confidence right back to your classroom.

Related posts:

Is multi-sensory learning hardwired into our humanity?
When in doubt, talk it out (learning styles)
How to find a good tutor
On Optimal Challenge

Topic: optimal challenge

On Optimal Challenge

Monday, December 7th, 2009

From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. (p.6)

Wow, what an aphorism! I think this description of optimal consciousness coincidentally happens to describe the process of good teaching, whether you’re teaching someone else or teaching yourself.

Every nanosecond that I spend with my students, I’m trying to present them with realistic goals by giving them things to do that I know they can do or that I’ve just shown them how to do. It’s not a question of “dumbing” anything down, but figuring out what they already know and building from there.

I also always try to match my students’ “opportunities for action,” also known as “math problems,” to their skill level. I give them material that they can do using what they’ve just learned, and I sometimes add some problems that are a bit of an extra stretch if I think the student is up for it.

I didn’t realize that, along the way, we were creating something as delicious as order in consciousness.