The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery

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Is this all you need to know about motivation, learning and professional development? No, probably not. But, it is a beguilingly complete way of tying together many of the theories which have baffled and bedevilled me over the past few years. Here they all are, neatly and beautifully packaged for your convenience.

I love the fact that Pete Jones (@Pekabelo) has designed this as a tube map as it resonates with an idea I read about recently about ‘staying on the bus’. All too often in life we ‘get off the bus’ as soon as we get to some sort of destination. Rarely do we stay on the bus for the long haul. The Helsinki Bus Station Theory suggests that if we ‘stay on the bus’ we’ll learn more than we ever thought possible. The reason we get off the bus is because we see all sorts of shiny objects twinkling by the roadside and decide that there must be a quicker way to get what we want. So, we get off the bus, grab a cab and miss out on what we really want.

For those who might be feeling that ‘mastery’ is an unattainably giddy height to which mere mortals cannot aspire, let’s quantify and distil the term to something on which we can agree. Gladwell’s bastardisation of Erikson’s work into the neat figure of 10,000 hours may not be in any way true, but it is a useful way of looking at mastery in that it does describe the fact there isn’t a short cut – mastery, however we define it, takes time. But, and this is the good news, if we want it enough, if we’re prepared to put in the effort, mastery is achievable.

It’s also worth pointing out that mastery is not perfection. It’s just being really good at something.

Resilience, effort and reflection

These are the traits or qualities required to keep us on the bus. To ability to carry on when it’s hard and despite the knocks is probably the chief life skill one can develop. As Billy Ocean says, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But this isn’t all; we also need to be able to reflect on our journey, to take stock and reconsider. We need to acknowledge false starts and consider new directions. The one are where I think the Bus Station/Tube Map analogy falls down is that it’s too passive. Just staying on the bus and following the map doesn’t take account of the fact that sometimes we don’t know what to do next. Being reflective will help to keep us on track and make all that effort and resilience worthwhile.

Grit & growth mindset

So, the Grit/Flow cycle begins with the determination to work towards masters and the belief that, with hard work, mastery is possible. If  you don’t believe this, or are not willing to put in the work, you may as well not bother getting on the train because, for you my friend, the journey will end before it’s begun. This is not to say you should give up hope, just that you need to reconsider whether mastery for you, in this particular area, is something you want to commit to. As teachers our job is to convince recalcitrant blighters that a) they can and that b) they should work towards a goal. ‘Mastery’ may seem like like too glossy a coat to wear, but for the sake of convincing students to work, we can just call it ‘getting better’. The better you get, the closer you are to mastery. It all depends how long you’re prepared to stay on the bus.

I’m often suspicious of lesson time spent on meta-cognition: I’d rather they expanded their cultural capital instead, but maybe we should teach students to understand the process of learning to enable them to monitor, control and regulate their own practice? We should definitely encourage them to see that hard work is its own reward and that anything worth learning will be challenging. I often begin a new topic by telling students that it’s really hard, that they’ll struggle and that this is normal: if it wasn’t difficult what would be the point in doing it? I tell them that they will make mistakes and that this is not only OK, it’s essential. I tell them that they can achieve more than they believe possible if they’re prepared to put the effort in, and that whatever they do achieve will be exactly proportionate to that effort.

If, for some reason, you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last few years and haven’t heard of Dr Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory, you can read about it here.

Deliberate Practice

The next stop on the cycle is the commitment to Deliberate Practice. Part of the path to mastery is understanding the value of deliberate practice. Boring? Well, maybe not. Many students commit many hours to playing computer games where the goal is to master the game and reach the end.  They get constant and instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t and then they get the opportunity to try out this feedback again and again until they get it right. Kids that quickly throw in the towel at school are willing to persevere at Call of Duty until they overcome their limitations. Why do they do it? Because they want to win. Being killed endlessly is all kinds of frustrating; the pleasure comes from mastery.

But why is it that these same kids moan at doing something hard in class? What is it that ‘engages’ them with computer games but turns them off with, say, grammar? Well, mainly it’s because choosing to squish things in your own time is fun and writing stuff in books because you’re told to isn’t. But fun be damned. Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Sometimes learning is not fun. Instead, it is just hard work; it is deliberate practice; it is simply doing some things many times over.” If our students always expect ‘fun’ lessons they will never get good at what we’re trying to teach them. We need to acknowledge that the kind of deliberate practice advocated here is not rote learning or repetitive ‘skill and drill’. Two important components are lashings of feedback and plenty of opportunities to perform.

Kids stick at computer games is because the feedback is instant, specific and useful; sometimes it will take some thinking about, but they know that there answer is there if they look for it. In school this isn’t always the case. Success criteria aren’t always clear enough about how students ‘win’ or how they get to the ‘end’. They have to wait until the end of the lesson for feedback and often don’t get any even then. Then, when we do give them some feedback, we ask them to do something else. They rarely get the opportunity to master one thing before being asked to start on some new, barely understood topic for reasons which are often hazy. This is the second part of the problem: we don’t give students nearly enough time to practise before moving them on in our reckless desire to cover all the content we have to get through. We tell ourselves (and them) that it’s all about ‘skills’ which student should be able to transfer from one subject to another but they don’t get the chance to ever master these skills in one area before being asked to jump though new, slightly differently shaped hoops.

‘Talent’ Developed

This then brings us to the development of ‘talent’. When you start to get good at something, you start to see the point. If we accept that talent is merely the endless hours of practice an individual has put into mastering a skill then we can help to explode some of the short cut culture which society seems to value so highly. We’re much too inclined to just see the performance of a professional athlete, musician or, dare I say it, teacher and conclude that, well, it’s alright for them. They have talent. And we don’t So why bother trying? What we don’t see are the hours and hours and deliberate practice that has gone in to to producing the performance. We don’t see the failures, the sweat or the frustration so we decide it mustn’t be there. There is not a musician or sports person alive who will not readily admit to the fact that natural ‘talent’ is almost irrelevant. You only get to the top of your game through determination and hard work. But when talent is developed, all the hard work seems to suddenly pay off and we’re granted magical moments when everything just ‘flows’.

Flow experiences

I spent much of last week grappling with the concept of flow. Initially I wanted to ditch it entirely but have now been persuaded that perhaps we can drain off the grubby bathwater whilst keeping the baby safe.

Last week, full of bombastic righteousness I said, “flow seems to be the antithesis of grit. Grit is carrying despite the pain. Grit is being able to practise until your fingers bleed. Grit is not fun. Grit is doing it even when it’s boring! This is the master skill. We should encourage students to delay the gratification of flow.” And I stand by this. The problem is that in a quick fix culture we believe we’re entitled to flow without effort and this is something that the ‘progress-every-20-minutes brigade’ only encourage.

I’m starting to worry about those lessons that just flow: are they learning or just performing really well? We’re conditioned to look at the tip of the iceberg and the graceful swan above the surface. We often say that learning is messy, but do we believe it? Bjork tells us that when learning is really happening, short term performance is reduced: it looks like we’re getting worse. That is why we shy away from gritty lessons; especially during observations. But if the journey is always hard we won’t stay on the bus. We need to glimpse the magic of flow in order to trudge on and experience it again. If life was just rehearsal, if sport was just training, what would be the point? We train because we want to perform at our peak when it really matters. For our students this may well be in their examinations, for us it may well be in that high stakes observation when the inspector comes to call. What ever the reason, we want to be able to experience flow when it really matters.

And then have the grit & growth mindset to stay on the bus and continue the journey to mastery.


I owe a huge debt to the following lovely people for their help in cobbing together this post:

  • Alex Quigley for the hard graft of reading through research papers and provoking all of this tail chasing in the first place.
  • Tom Sherrington for challenging my thinking and being determined to hold to what he believed.
  • Roo Stenning for clarifying my thinking and chipping away at the edifice to discover the simplicity within. And for coming up with the suitably grandiose title!
  • And Pete Jones for the clear thinking and ‘talent’ which resulted in the Grit?Flow Cycle tube map.

Related posts

Grit vs Flow – what’s best for learning?
Easy vs Hard
But is it art?

2013-07-19T22:30:51+00:00March 10th, 2013|Featured, learning|


  1. CPD | Pearltrees March 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    […] The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery I love the pack that Pete Jones (@Pekabelo) has designed this as a tube map as it resonates with an idea I read about recently about ‘staying on the bus’. All too often in life we ‘get off the bus’ as soon as we get to some sort of destination. Rarely do we stay on the bus for the long haul. The Helsinki Bus Station Theory suggests that if we ‘stay on the bus’ we’ll learn more than we ever thought possible. Teacher reflection is a hot topic at the moment and we at IRIS Connect talk about it all the time. The interesting thing is I’m not sure it’s actually very well defined. I think it’s important to distinguish between, Reflection and Progressive Reflection. Teachers reflect all the time; it’s natural to think about the lesson delivered, how it went and to actively explore ways of improving it next time. Frankly this is proof positive of the professionalism of teachers, however, I think this kind of refection is not necessarily the most positive and developmental activity. […]

  2. Martin Said March 10, 2013 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    There is actually some evidence to suggest (at least in the domain of creativity) that deliberate practice can exist within the sphere of and is actually an observable behaviour characteristic of flow.

    Lori Custodero (2005) described three types of behaviour which were indicative of a flow state in school music making.

    1. Challenge seeking (i.e. from within)
    2. Challenge monitoring (that is responding to the external, i.e. anticipating or building upon)
    3. Social context indicators (that is responding to the presence of others i.e. gestures, eye contact, verbal interaction)

    The first two tend more towards Csikszentmihalyi’s idea and dimensions of flow (clear goals, immediate feedback etc.) as they can be experienced alone.

    Within that first, ‘Challenge seeking’ group of behaviours Custodero includes self assignment: the self-initiated purposeful activity, in which skill acquisition and mastery are sought.

    The reference is:
    Custodero, L. (2002). Seeking challenge, finding skill: Flow experience in music education. Arts Education and Policy Review,

    Though I learned about her research through the writing of John Finney.

  3. learningspy March 10, 2013 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    Cheers Martin. Did you read the stuff I quoted from on this post: It related directly to music so you might be interested

  4. Martin Said March 10, 2013 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    Yeah thanks David, added to google reader. Reading it makes me lament my own lack of practice since becoming a teacher. If I ever start my masters again my thesis will probably be around the importance or otherwise of students seeing their music teacher as a practising musician.

  5. Debaser March 12, 2013 at 10:36 am - Reply

    “We don’t give students nearly enough time to practise before moving them on in our reckless desire to cover all the content we have to get through.”

    I agree completely with this but, short of waiting for curriculum reform, what can we do about it?
    The GCSE English course I teach contains 38 different texts (if you include anthology extracts).
    It would be pretty ‘reckless’ of me not to ‘cover all the content’, no?

    The computer game analogy is flawed IMO. Blowing up zombies and scoring goals on Fifa is simply more entertaining than identifying a subordinate clause – that’s why kids persist with games and give up on grammar. Most schools use ‘MyMaths’ software which gives the kind of instant feedback and repetitive practice you’re talking about. It would be interesting to know whether its introduction has had any tangible effect on student performance/engagement.

    • dancingscotty June 11, 2014 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      MyMaths has not in my opinion improved student engagement… Check out FB I hate MyMaths page… They quite like the games but not not reading the lessons.

  6. learningspy March 12, 2013 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Computer gamers are not being used as an analogy but as an example. But maybe you’re right; maybe zombies are inherently fun and sentence structure inherently not. Maybe we have nothing to learn from the tenacity some students exhibit in persevering with computer games. Admittedly, for me they don’t work: I get bored of scoring goals fairly rapidly!

    But as to your 38 texts for GCSE English – what on earth are they? Arguably there are 15 poems to study for the literature exam but the board classifies these clusters as one ‘text’. Whatever the case, I take it you’re not seriously advocating racing through each of your 38 with no opportunity to embed students’ understanding? I would hope any well-planned English programme of study would look to approach the study of texts in similar ways using techniques and strategies that are built on each time a new text is studied. Not so?

    And for curriculum redesign, can I point you in the direction of this post
    Why wait for someone else to make a change?

  7. […] is so insightful on this key issue in his blog, gloriously entitled Grand Unified Theory of Mastery In the end I reckon students need grit, and sometimes they’ll achieve flow. I think that if you […]

  8. […] But it will always be worth it.  See David Didau’s (@thelearningspy) post on ‘The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery’.  Puts me in mind of […]

  9. […] but this is more about modelling, trial and error, repetition, and what David Didau calls “deliberate practice“. In other words, the students themselves have to develop and strengthen the intellectual […]

  10. […] take a strategic overview of their performance and attitudes towards their performance. The path to mastery isn’t smooth, but it becomes a lot easier when we accept that it’s hard and that […]

  11. […] Does creativity need rules? The mathematics of writing The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery […]

  12. […] Ugly: The Secrets of ‘Gritty’ Teaching and Learning, and to David Didau‘s Grand Unified Theory of Mastery. If you haven’t read either of these, I can’t recommend them highly enough. My aim is […]

  13. […] Is this all you need to know about motivation, learning and professional development? No, probably not. But, it is a beguilingly complete way of tying together many of the theories which have baffled and bedevilled me over the past few years.  […]

  14. […] Just found out that I wasn´t the first person on earth to have the abovementioned thoughts (What was I thinking anyway…?). Here´s a very instructive blog post along similar by the name of Grand Unified Theory of Mastery. […]

  15. […] each other teach and offer feedback. But it has to run and run, “staying on the bus” (as always, David Didau got there first on this one) if you like until it becomes routine […]

  16. […] Resilience, effort and reflection … I'm often suspicious of lesson time spent on meta-cognition: I'd rather they expanded their cultural capital instead, but maybe we should teach students to understand the process of learning to enable them to…  […]

  17. […] The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery […]

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