Regardless of how I (or anyone else in the class) did, we moved on to the next topic, and each test grade was averaged together with other assessments, homework, quizzes, tests and sometimes far more subjective ideas like “class participation”. In the end, my class grade was a letter that was somewhat arbitrarily aligned to my overall average and, again, I moved on to the next class to start the whole thing over again.
The above scenario is very much focused on the assessment. The grade you get on that test (or project, essay or homework assignment) is what you deserved because you worked hard and studied, or didn’t, or perhaps simply because you aren’t smart enough to do well on that topic. The learning itself is secondary. The fact that a number like 90% may not actually relate all that much to any specific learning is irrelevant. And the fact that perhaps further learning happened after the assessment and the concepts were understood more deeply is also irrelevant.
I’ll give an example. In high school, I decided to study German, a strange decision given that the only opportunity I had in my New England town to actually practice in front of real Germans was when I was talking to my teacher. Luckily, I enjoyed that teacher and the class and so I kept going, although I was a lousy German student. By that, I mean that I did a horrible job of sitting and studying vocabulary and memorising how grammar structures work. My friends were far better students who studied hard and got good grades on their vocabulary quizzes. I found, though, that I was learning, not by studying vocabulary out of context, but instead by the conversations that I was having with my German teacher.
In fact, one of the most memorable moments of my high school years was in 1989 when my teacher, Mrs Lincoln, walked into class crying with joy because the Berlin Wall had come down. This moment of learning, both of history and of the language it took to talk with my teacher about it, represents a great deal of the way I was as a student: I liked to learn rather than study.
It’s with this framework that I want to look at the philosophy of mastery learning. Rather than looking at school as a place in which we take tests, mastery learning posits that we should be looking at school as a place where learning takes place. If we are operating from this assumption, then the schooling that I described above doesn’t work. A teacher can’t just walk away from a concept because they are done teaching it; the work is only done when the students understand it, or when they have “mastered” it.
So, in a school that operates under a mastery learning philosophy, teachers are always checking in with students to gauge understanding. Grades are specifically about what they have mastered, rather than what they “deserve”, and students who have not mastered concepts are not just left to languish and they are not left behind, but rather teachers continue to work with them and reteach these concepts until everyone is on board, until everyone understands and until everyone has mastered them.
So, why mastery learning? I would say we should embrace mastery learning because I hope we believe that school should be about ensuring all students are learning, rather than ensuring students know how to take tests. But more than that, in a mastery learning environment we can ensure that all students are growing. In fact the entire philosophy starts with that idea: that all students can be successful.
A mastery learning environment also ensures that every concept is mastered by everyone. There’s no 90% or 75%, arbitrary numbers that don’t really mean that much. After all, I believe I got a “C” in that German class which equates to 75%. But the big question was always: 75% of what? What exactly was that 25% that I missed, and what if that was the most essential part of that work? Or, conversely, what if that 75% that I had mastered was really being able to communicate in the language, and the 25% was points marked off because I showed up late to class?
So, again, why mastery learning? I’ve taught in a mastery learning system for the past decade of my career. Before that, I taught in a traditional American high school and I struggled with the idea of needing to put a number on everything, since the entire grade programme we had was based on percentages. I taught writing, which is the ultimate mastery learning topic, and I always wanted my students to continue working on their writing, to revise and improve even after they turned their work in because this was the way that real writers operate: we work and rework until it is exactly the way that we want it to be. But the system I was working in didn’t encourage this; instead, it encouraged a student getting a grade and being done.
Mastery learning allowed me to teach in a way that was so much more natural. It allowed me to teach to my students instead of teach toward an assessment. And that’s where my belief in mastery learning comes from.
– Eben Plese
Eben Plese is the QSI Regional Supervisor for China/East Asia, which includes QSI International School of Phuket. For more information, visit www.qsi.org/thailand/pkt