This is a blog about mastery in the classroom, based on the musings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.
There are my thoughts based on books I have read and an accumulation of teaching experiences of others and self. I do not promise a solution in this blog, or even a degree of coherence. However, you will read a short introduction to Gurdjieff, with links and references to mastery and memory and how all three can apply in the classroom for us as teachers, and potentially our students. I hope you find it useful …
Gurdjieff claimed ‘that people cannot perceive reality in their current states because they do not possess consciousness, but rather live in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.”‘ I wonder if this saying can be applied to teaching? That we as teachers, are often in auto-pilot, not truly in tune with what is going on in the classroom?
Who was Gurdjieff?
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949), was a dominant teacher of the early to mid-20th century who taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”. Gurdjieff developed a means for doing so, calling his teachings, “The Work” (connoting “work on oneself”) or “the Method”. According to his theory and stipulation, Gurdjieff’s method for awakening one’s awareness is the discipline called the “Fourth Way“.
According to this system, The fourth way has no specific forms and comes and goes controlled by some particular laws of its own. How true is this of teaching in the classroom? In 1912 he offered Moscow an unknown teaching, a teaching that was ‘neither a religion, nor a philosophy, but a practical teaching to be lived’. He called this education ‘The Fourth Way’. To emanate the way he suggested, nothing was to be believed until authenticated by direct evidence. His way of life, was that everything had to be questioned – one’s beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and perhaps teaching methods?
How true is this today of teachers in the classroom? Should we question how we are trained? How we are taught to teach from feedback received? What we are told / guided to do by our peers, mentors and senior leadership?
The Fourth Way:
Gurdjieff had taught that traditional paths that followed one of three ways:
- The Way of the fakir; works to obtain mastery of the attention (self-mastery) through struggles with [controlling] the physical body …
- The Way of the monk; works to obtain the same mastery of the attention (self-mastery) through struggle with [controlling] the affections …
- The Way of the yogi; works to obtain the same mastery of the attention (as before: ‘self mastery’) through struggle with [controlling] mental habits and capabilities. (Source)
How much of this is relevant to us as teachers in order to require mastery in the classroom?
Gurdjieff insisted that these paths cultivated certain faculties at the expense of others. Could this be similar to the fixed versus growth mindset that so many of us discuss today? The goal, to produce a well-balanced, responsive and capable student, who can deal with all that life may offer. Gurdjieff made it clear that it was necessary to cultivate a way that integrated and combined the traditional three ways.
One of Gurdjieff’s most famous students, was Peter D. Ouspensky, a Russian esoteric philosopher, who met Gurdjieff in 1916 and spent the next few years studying with him, later forming his own independent groups which also focused on the Fourth Way. He wrote In Search of the Miraculous about his experiences with Gurdjieff. There are images of The Fourth Way here and a good explanation of its meaning here. (It may be worth a quick glance for context)
Mastery and Memory:
If we wish our students to truly ‘master’ our subject, then as teachers we need to be ‘truly self-aware’ of what is going on in the classroom. We too must acquire mastery in the classroom. One solution I firmly believe can help us achieve this is IRIS Connect. To self-observe one’s own practice and observe how students learn in your classroom, is made much easier with video observations; observing colleagues and keeping your classroom doors open to/for your peers.
For us to fully understand, what knowledge, understanding, comprehension, familiarity, command, grasp is being learnt is being learnt in the classroom, we must first understand what is going on in the classroom from a teaching perspective. We need to learn to amass mastery in the classroom. To do this, a teacher must be able to do so many of the ‘things’ that we are not taught on a BEd, or a PGCE, or with Teach First programme. That understanding what goes on in the classroom and how you say something, what you do and where you position yourself in the class, can only be fully understood, with direct classroom experience; observations and development of self.
What we say and how we say it, our verbal and non-verbal interactions with students play a vital part in the classroom. Of course, this is not all that is required, but these are fundamental to what we do as teachers and how we enable students to master and learn (to capture in the memory).
Memory for specific episodes in advance from personal experience, occurring in a particular context of time and place. This type of memory is all about retrieval.
Memory for general knowledge, such as the meanings associated with particular words and shapes, without reference to any specific contextual episode, (contrasts with episodic memory).
“Most tests of memory involve the direct testing of what the subject is able to consciously remember and report which is known as explicit memory. Tests of recall and recognition of both examples of explicit memory, and for many years this was the only type of member to be studied.” (Source)
If you want to be masters of our classrooms and for our students to have implicit memory functions so they can self-master the attention of subjects, we need to develop a level of awareness as classroom practitioners. Claxton (1998) suggests that implicit memory may also be the mechanism underlying intuition, or ‘hunches.’ How true is this of us as teachers? How often have we planned a lesson based on a hunch of what they student know/don’t know and where we hope to take them? Or during the actual lesson, develop a level of intuition and moved our learning objectives to suit specific contexts within the classroom?
I’m sure your answer is often, frequently and always.
In Mastery Teaching (MC Hunter, 1982), Increasing Instructional Effectiveness in Primary and Secondary Schools, there are three key questions in the introduction;
- What content to teach next?
- What the student will do to learn and to demonstrate learning has occurred?
- What the teacher will do to facilitate the acquisition of that learning?
“… it is important for teachers to identify consciously and deliberately the decisions they must make in each category and base their decisions on … validated knowledge. Equally important is the teacher’s ability to “read” signals from students, and to assess the learning situation, so necessary adjustments can be made.”
This cannot be mastered without practical experience. In Hunter’s research, the conclusion states that the first decision of teaching is based on content, the what of teaching, the second decision is directed at the student behaviour that makes learning possible, the student’s how of learning. In many blogs by, I have often argued that the ‘why‘ of teaching is often left behind in so many of our day-to-day decisions in the classroom.
If we could all consider the why of teaching, we may then be able to equip ourselves, as well as our students, to acquire mastery in the classroom.
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I’ve read several books written by G.I. Gurdjieff. His published books include:
- The Herald of Coming Good by G. I. Gurdjieff (1933, 1971, 1988)
- All and Everything trilogy:
- Views from the Real World gathered talks of G. I. Gurdjieff by his pupil Olga de Hartmann(1973) – Read.
You can find other academic papers on Mastery Teaching below, such as;
- Who benefits from mastery learning?
- Lessons of Mastery Learning.
- When good teaching leads to bad results.