From Mastery to Inquiry

From Mastery to Inquiry

I have often considered Mastery to be the thing to which all students should strive. I have thought of it as the pinnacle of achievement in any area of my life. After all, the spectrum of knowledge moves from naïveté to Mastery, right? You should want to be a master of your domain, whether that is engineering, film-making, poetry, or cuisine.

And yet, I now find the concept of Mastery to be severely lacking.

Why should we strive to master concepts or disciplines in the same way that others might master human beings (you know, slavery)? Why should we encourage children to pursue mastery when that word implies a singular feat, a destination to be reached by competing with and dominating others. There is no final state of learning. You will never become the master of math or reading (or basketball, for that matter). You can only continue on your path, one distinct from every other.

And it isn’t just the word, its definition, or its origin that I am struggling with. When you look up all of the other words you might replace it with, you realize just how gendered and fraught the whole endeavor is:

We should not seek to be “Big Daddy’s” of our learning or the “owner” of all knowledge. As educators and leaders, it is not for us to be the opposite of our “pupils.” We are on the same journey, and it isn’t triangle shaped with the “Archetypes” at the top and everyone else who is striving to climb a fictional ladder to be installed as the final “champion” of education.

I believe we are experiencing the golden age of learning. We have access to everything we need to authentically make progress in any pursuit we like. This is happening every day with Youtube mechanics, Wikipedia scholars, and Medium storytellers and journalists. We just lack the words to adequately describe the process of moving from a lack of knowledge to a significant amount of expertise and understanding.

Furthermore, we lack the language to differentiate between those “doing their own research” and those who are applying the scientific methods (or other rigorous frameworks to establish objectivity and validity). If we claim “expertise” or “mastery,” we are claiming a high ground, no matter how rocky the footing is. If we continue to build our educational systems (including those employed within organizations in the guise of Professional Development) based upon those who have developed Mastery, we are setting ourselves up to be disappointed. We will never get there. We will always find ourselves fighting against hierarchy and gatekeeping because our language makes it so.

If there is one Master, then the rest of us are servants. At least until we can be Masters ourselves. This dichotomous language doesn’t serve us well. So, I would like to propose a change.

Inquiry is the new Mastery.

If we frame the spectrum from Naïveté to Inquiry, there is no final state. Inquiry goes on forever. Inquirers thirst for information and can always find more. While Masters dictate truth, Inquirers make meaning from the world around them. Inquiry serves us far better in a world where there are far too many sources to ever know the whole story. The authentic quest for learning is is the goal, not Mastery of some fictional ideal.

Better yet, Inquiry is actually possible, whereas Mastery is always out of our reach. Even the most incredibly talented individuals experience “imposter syndrome,” but no one is ever done learning. Orienting our systems toward inquiry and becoming better at learning over time is the best tool we have for combating misinformation and skepticism for well-established research methods.

So, whenever you find yourself advocating for Mastery, please take a pause. It is likely that you want Inquiry. You want to be a passionate inquirer, an experienced inquirer, an open inquirer. You want others to inquire with you, as teammates, colleagues, or friends. You don’t want to be Masters over them. You want them to go on the voyage with you.

By changing our language we may just be able to start inviting others into our world, not as subjects which must pay fealty, but as inquiry companions. To get us started, maybe we should all post the universal sign to indicate our movement away from Mastery: Inquire Within.

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