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Mastery Teaching

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Modified on June 5, 2023
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This is my 25th year teaching. Yet, it feels a bit like my first. Let me explain. I am part of a small team of teachers at my school who have volunteered to pilot a mastery learning program with our seventh-grade students. Like my first year in the classroom, the learning curve is steep.

We didn’t jump in willy-nilly. The primary motivator for me was when we reflected on the success of our own students after graduation. I now have 20 years of students I have helped to teach, and then watched as they forayed out into the post-high school world. The dismaying reality is many of our finest, most successful students struggle and sometimes even drop out when they enter college. In fact, one in three nationally do not make it past their freshman year, according to “What Percentage of College Students Fail Their First Semester.” This same article gives some suggestions about why our students are failing.

Taking Action

We want to change the statistics for our own students, so we are taking action. Last spring, our principal invited our teaching team to visit two systems in our state implementing different versions of a mastery learning program and finding success. The school-within-a-school version looked very different than our own classes. The students were lounging on couches and moving from room to room with what seemed to be little organization. The district-wide approach had more formal classrooms, but the students were working in a variety of formats. Some were independent on a laptop, some were grouped in twos and threes, and some were in what looked like traditional classroom groupings. It was when we began talking with the students that we discovered the real advantages in both versions. These students were learning, and more importantly, they were aware of their learning. They were consciously taking personal control and responsibility. It was remarkable. After that experience, we were hooked. We did more research about successful strategies, checked out a few programs, made some applications, and completed some professional training. This fall, we jumped into mastery learning and began our own learning adventure. Let me share with you what we have learned so far.

First, changing the system is hard—for everyone. We couldn’t have wished for a better group of students to take on this journey, but after a few weeks many were frustrated. Our program is divided into two main portions. The bulk is structured around mastering what we call “cognitive skills”. These are discrete, definable, higher-level skills derived from national standards and delineated clearly using a school-wide rubric. This portion is taught in content-rich units that use problem-based learning questions to drive inquiry. Students work in small groups, large groups, and independently to produce end products based on the learning. Though much of the work is digital, the daily learning looks similar to the best parts of our previous classrooms.

The specific curricular content makes up the smaller chunk. Resources are curated and available online to work through independently. The students choose their preferred formats based on their personal learning styles. Mastery is proved through content quizzes. This independent work is where our students seemed to struggle. Weaker academic students were overwhelmed with the freedom of choice. One girl told me, “I wish you’d just give me a worksheet and I’d be done.” Our stronger students also were a bit daunted. One young scholar, who was always at the top of his class, failed his first assessment. He was appalled. He had never failed anything at school before, and this program was clearly unfair. If he didn’t get it the first time, something was definitely wrong.

Learning Today for Long Term Success

Our teaching team meets daily to reflect on and refine our delivery. What we are coming to realize is these struggles are what our students need to be successful long term. Learning today is not bound to a finite body of knowledge, and we are not capable of having all the answers. Siri and Alexa are much faster and they have exponentially more resources. We can no longer produce a worksheet that contains precisely what our students need to learn. (If we ever could.) Our students were overwhelmed at first by the volume of information the resources provided, but that is a tiny fraction of what’s available with one Google search. What we all are learning is the content is still important, but sifting through available sources, identifying critical information, and conceptualizing the patterns, effects, and conclusions of all that information is the real work. Anyone can Google the Magna Carta, but developing learning strategies that help them understand and utilize new information is what our students will need to be successful post-high school.

Another lesson we have learned is that our students often don’t know what they don’t know. The Dunning-Kruger Effect can be described as the tendency of people who have very limited knowledge in an area to overestimate their own competency. They simply don’t know enough to recognize how little they really know—and operate on an oblivious but flawed understanding. When we first started, many of our students spent a class period or so perusing videos and jotting down the first few words of an article, and then assured us they were well prepared to take the assessment. They were completely confident they had mastered the content. That first failure was stunning, but enlightening as well.

By organizing their own learning, they are forced to first determine what they know and what they don’t know. We have all used learning tools like K-W-L to help our students identify what they need to learn, but we usually are at the head of the class: guiding, suggesting, and then providing the information students will require. This is a very different process. Our students are discovering how to determine what is critical information, and how they can best learn it. These are powerful skills. Switching to mastery learning has forced us as teachers to transfer some control and responsibility to our students.

Bob & John

Stepping back from the role of omniscient leader is harder than I imagined, but the results are well worth the demotion. For example, just last week, I watched a somewhat socially awkward student working with another, more confident young man. (I will call the confident boy “Bob” and the helper “John.”) Bob was struggling with how to approach the learning, and asked John for help. Bob had watched the videos and looked at the articles for a few days, but had not mastered any assessments. John listened and then walked through his own process of learning. I heard him say, “Bob, if what you’re doing isn’t working, why do you keep doing it? What else could you do so you can pass some tests?” Bob took it amazingly well. He nodded, stopped moaning, and with some help began strategizing his revised learning plan. The next day, Bob passed the assessment. As the bell rang, he walked up to the other student and said, “Hey, Man. Thank you. I mean it.” Both boys left a bit better for the experience. I didn’t do a thing, but I was delighted.

As a team of teachers, we still have a lot of learning to do before we feel competent in this new role. We have a new platform to navigate, new curriculum to learn, and a very new style of learning and teaching. But as we finish the first quarter of the year, we are feeling affirmed in our choice. Our students are facing a rapidly changing world, and we have accepted the challenge to help them prepare for it. We are learning right along with them, and perhaps, that’s the best lesson we can provide.

Works Cited

Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77, no. 6, 1999, pp. 1121–1134., doi:10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121.
“What Percentage of College Students Fail Their First Semester?” Synonym, classroom.synonym.com/percentage-college-students-fail-first-semester-7610.html.

More than any other teacher professional development curriculum, LETRS prepares educators for the challenging work of teaching literacy. LETRS is independently validated by top researchers as positively impacting teacher instruction and student achievement.


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