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Mastery Learning from 2 Experts

December 7, 2013

The new edition of Educational Leadership, produced by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), is devoted to the question: How do we help our students achieve mastery in their learning?  Getting Students to Mastery is an excellent compilation of articles written by a group of compelling educators, thinkers and writers.  I want to focus on the first two articles and summarize the highlights from Grant Wiggins’ piece, How Good is Good Enough, and Tom Guskey’s piece, In Search of a Useful Definition of Mastery.

I highly recommend both articles.  They give wonderful insights into the concept of mastery learning, as well as frame some interesting questions around instruction, curriculum design, assessment and grading.  Both authors are highly respected thought-leaders in these areas of educational research.

Summary of main ideas from Grant Wiggins, How Good is Good Enough?

  • We want all students to have high-level “understanding” and “facility” in terms of key learning goals.
  • He asks two questions: “what is mastery?” and “what level of performance is high enough for us to say that a goal has been mastered?”
  • He proposes that most schools define mastery as: “high score on any old quiz.”
  • We might define mastery arbitrarily as a 90% or better on a summative assessment-the A grade.  What is this definition based on?  Many assessments teachers administer are “simplistic and non-validated” with regard to rigorous standards that require students to think along all six domains of Blooms taxonomy.
  • He proposes that schools use invalid and unjustified schemes for giving scores and accolades.
  • What we should do is define and design complex, worthy, and valid tasks on which students must demonstrate high-level ability.  Many of these tasks should be performance-based tasks.
  • “Take a complex whole, divide it into small pieces, string those together in a rigid sequence of instruction and testing, and call completion of this sequence “mastery.”  Wiggins defines a great deal of teaching and curricula in this way.
  • In points out that “once we decide on breaking a complex performance into bits, we end up wrongly defining mastery as recall of vocabulary terms and isolated facts instead of any “facility or power.””
  • Wiggins defines mastery as: “Mastery is effective TRANSFER of learning in authentic and worthy performance.  Students has mastered a subject when they are fluent, even CREATIVE, in using their knowledge, skills and understanding (I would add ability) in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject, as measured against valid and high standards.”
  • He points out that mastery is not just technical knowledge…if a student only possesses skills and facts in isolation and can only produce them on demand in response to prompts…they have not mastered the subject.  This could be the A student who does well on tests.
  • Instruction for mastery must be backwards designed from cornerstone tasks, authentic tasks and scenarios, that are at the heart of the subject.
  • He sees the Common Core Standards as being written in this way.  He makes the case the CCS are a good set of guideposts to lead towards mastery.
  • I found his example of mastery education using John Wooden’s coaching techniques interesting.
  • His second key question regarding mastery is: How Good is Good Enough?
  • Be careful not to score too generously
  • He thinks we need to recalibrate our standards for what is “good.”  We need some agreement as to how high the bar needs to be to establish mastery.  Shouldn’t only be defined locally by a school.
  • He believes “most teachers merely come up with an algorithm for calculating grades rather than ensuring that their grades link to larger, defensible standards.”
  • We have to provide valid feedback early and often on the learning journey.
  • He argues that we have to have, use, and apply both content and performance standards to mastery.  The two are NOT the same.
  • Standards used to judge mastery should be more than local (school-based) standards…they should be “world” standards…NCTM, NSTA, NAEP, etc.
  • In addition to grades, students should receive a standards-based score—scores based on national or standards-aligned assessments.
  • ‘MASTERY IS THE EFFECTIVE AND GRACEFUL TRANSFER OF LEARNING TO MEET AUTHENTIC PERFORMANCE CHALLENGES.”

Summary of main ideas from Tom Guskey, In Search of a Useful Definition of Mastery

  • “What concept of mastery will most effectively guide curriculum and instruction in the 21st Century?” (some of my words inserted)
  • mastery <–> competence <–> proficiency: are they the same or different
  • Steps to mastery might be thought of as: novice –> competent –> experienced –> master
  • Guskey spends a good deal of time reviewing how Benjamin Bloom looked as mastery, he references Bloom’s 1968 article, Looking for Mastery.
  • Can all students achieve mastery if given enough time and favorable learning conditions?  Is this part of a debate about Nature vs. Nurture?
  • Guskey points out that Bloom argued that grades and evaluations of students should be criterion-based that designate distinct levels of achievement according to the learning target.  “Tell me what you expect of students to receive an A.”  These decisions of mastery involve choice and are value judgments.
  • He describes two students, Judy and Ben.  Judy is driven by mastery goals and Ben is drive by performance goals.  The different goals matter.  Mastery goals lead a person to persisting more in achieving learning outcomes, especially challenging ones.  Students driven by mastery goals are more likely to focus on learning.
  • Guskey points out that teachers can facilitate their students developing mastery goals as opposed to performance goals.  What practices impact this: (1) allowing students to resubmit assignments; (2) do not talk about grades as a driver; and (3) encourage self-comparisons versus comparisons to others
  • Mastery is something we see from observable performance on tasks related to a concept or skill
  • Guskey points out that setting percentage cutoffs on any form of assessment as a way to determine mastery is an arbitrary decision.  It does not tell us much about the expectations of the teacher.
  • Teachers need to focus more on the cognitive complexity of their assignments and assessments..both test and performance-oriented.
  • He points out that researchers suggest: “that an appropriate approach to setting cutoffs for mastery must combine teachers’ judgments of the importance of the concepts addressed and consideration of the cognitive processing skills required by the items or tasks.
  • Determining mastery may come down to professional judgment.
  • He points out that since scores on assessments are never completely accurate, educators often adjust cutoff scores. There is subjectivity in this practice as well.
  • Interestingly, he points out: “even when assessment designers are trained, judgment-based methods for standard setting can by untrustworthy and sometimes manipulated.
  • Considering the many factors that go into defining mastery..it may help teachers plan their classes and instruction in ways that will help more students achieve mastery.  He points out to do this teachers must…
    • be sure all students understand the learning goals
    • be sure that they communicate the goal clearly
    • be sure students clearly know what mastery looks like and how it will be measured
    • be sure that students know the criteria by which a performance task will be judged
    • allow students to work on tasks repeatedly without penalties until they achieve mastery
    • allow students to practice the skills needed to achieve mastery and give them formative feedback regularly as they move along the path
  • Teachers should act more as coaches rather than deliverers of information if they want their students to mastery concepts and skills.

I am intrigued  by the concept of mastery learning.  In speaking with teachers about their work, I think most teachers want their students to “master” the concepts and skills.  I wonder if they fully understand the depth of what is meant by mastery or what they mean by mastery.  If we use Wiggins’ definition above, then we will need to adjust our instructional models to allow for greater transfer of knowledge, skills and abilities to more authentic performance tasks that mirror what professionals do and use a more diverse set of standards to judge quality.

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