During a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, award-winning journalist and best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked why, given his ability to reach an audience of millions through articles, books, comic books, and Hollywood films, he’d invest his time teaching journalism to relatively small classes of undergraduates. His response was that the practice of teaching helps him stay at the top of his game as a writer:
[T]he fact [is] when you write or you practice any sort of craft for a long period of time, a kind of muscle memory takes over. It has to. You have to stop thinking about things after a while. You have to just kind of do them. [So] I find it to be an incredible intellectual exercise to have to . . . explain to a novice why a piece of journalism that [I] admire works.
As a deeply experienced and expert writer–one who is “unconsciously competent”–Coates finds value in slowing down and reflecting on things he might otherwise take for granted in a favorite essay*, like the strength of a specific lede, or the power of an emotional close. His observation is also an endorsement of reflection and meta-cognition, two principles at the core of PBL and mastery learning. For Coates, his teaching is a forcing function for reflection—it creates space for him to step outside normal routines, think about why something is good, and then articulate that in terms that others can grasp.
This insight is timely because our team has been spending lots of time listening to educators discuss systems and tools for project-based Learning. While specific techniques and terminology vary from school to school, every practitioner embraces the idea of PBL as a process, and each of their process models includes steps for learners to reflect on their learning and share those reflections with others. These moves are at the core of meta-cognition, and also underscore that it is the result of deliberate practice. Hearing Coates stress meta-cognition’s importance to his own craft was validation that MTC schools are preparing learners with skills they’ll use long after they graduate and ascend in their chosen fields.
With that said, the road to expertise and career success is a long one, and for many MTC students will include college. I urge you to listen to the admission readers in our recent Higher Ed Talkback Panel commenting on how they valued the Mastery Transcript when assessing the readiness of high schoolers to learn at the college level. I was particularly struck by the comments from Heidi Elmendorf of Georgetown University’s Pivotal Network, who observed that the “Mastery Transcript lets students join their teachers as partners . . . in telling their stories. . . [and by so doing] it builds in that meta-cognitive ability that we don’t normally build into K-12 learning.”
It’s the juxtaposition of meta-cognition’s products–better learners and more useful evidence of learning for outside readers–that excites our team about the future of MTC. In that vein, we’re trying very hard to follow one of Coates’ teachings: to never take our readers’ time for granted.
I always tell my students, we live in a time wherein people could be doing all sorts of things besides reading you. You are in competition with a smartphone. You’re in competition with a video game console. You’re in competition with HBO Max and Apple and all sorts of streaming options at this point. You have to write with a sense of immediacy.
I know from direct feedback from admissions officers that we, too, are in competition for their time. Every page we design, every feature we add, has to reward those readers for giving us time that they could be spending elsewhere. Our secret weapon–our vibranium, if you will–is that we serve schools that excel at helping learners write their own stories with a sense of immediacy.
*You can listen to Coates do just this–reflect on a favorite essay–during the end of that same interview. He speaks at length about “The Really Big One,” by Kathryn Schulz , and his comments are themselves a miniature masterclass about journalism and storytelling in general.