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December 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 4

One to Grow On / Let's Not Dilute Mastery

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Because I spent a lot of years as an English teacher working with students on word choices, I think a lot about vocabulary and definitions. I worry about words people assign to a particular purpose when the assignment dilutes the power of that word. That's the case for me now with many educators' current use of the word mastery.
I'm pretty sure that this word, as I currently hear it used in school circles, has come to mean a "passable" score on a test, or perhaps the correct application of a narrow construct to a limited task. I suppose those aren't bad things—arguably they're even necessary to young people's academic develop ment (although I'm not certain of that). But they aren't satisfactory indicators of mastery.
Merriam Webster's online dictionary speaks of mastery as knowledge and skill that allows a person to do, use, or understand something very well. Mastery connotes superiority, ascendancy, dominion, authority in, or command of an area of knowledge. Associated words include virtuosity, fluency, expertise, and know-how. Attaining those things requires something more expansive than earning a particular test score or doing a set of classroom practice activities.

Identification and Inspiration

To me, mastery implies identification with a pursuit. Michael Inzlicht and Catherine Good find that unless a student comes to identify with a content area, that student is unlikely to exert the effort necessary to develop genuine mastery in that area. That suggests to me that a teacher's job shouldn't be defined as preparing and assigning "practice work," having all students pass a standardized test, or even preparing students for a test of any kind. Leading young people to mastery in any subject entails creating scenarios in which learners see themselves in that subject—because they grasp its potential to extend their capacities and to benefit other people.
When a 1st grade teacher charges her students with being neighborhood ethnographers so they deeply understand the place where they live, inspiration and identification begin to happen. Inspiration and identification happen when middle school math students recognize, investigate, and make a proposal to the city council to modify a dangerous traffic pattern at a local construction site. They happen when a high school English teacher has her students conduct a personal odyssey as they read Homer's Odyssey.
Test prep doesn't come close to this standard of inspiration and identification with a content area. Educator Ron Berger notes, "As every teacher knows, you can mandate tests and standards and curricula all you want, but it means nothing if you can't inspire kids to care."

Attitudes for Success

Mastery also implies attitudes that characterize success—a work ethic, willingness to think strategically, tolerance for ambiguity, capacity to delay gratification, clarity about what quality looks like, and so on. I can think of no individuals who've achieved real mastery of a skill or discipline without those characteristics. Completing many of the tasks characteristic of schoolwork neither commends nor inspires those attributes. Standardized tests do not measure them.
Mastery also suggests awareness of one's own skill level. An interaction Ron Berger witnessed at an education conference shows what evolving mastery looks like.
Students from a rural, low-income elementary school were presenting some of their work at the conference. A man in the audience asked one of the students whether she was a good writer. She responded that the question was difficult. Her fiction was strong, as were her essays; she produced good story ideas and could express her opinions clearly in expository writing. Further, she worked very hard at her writing and created many drafts of each piece. However, she added, she had some serious weaknesses. A learning disability caused her great difficulty with spelling. She used a number of strategies to improve her spelling, but it was still a challenge. Ultimately, she invited the questioner to review some of her samples with her so he could see her strengths and weaknesses.

Why I'm Worried

I worry—not that educators don't talk enough about mastery, but that we've lost sight of what mastery means. Here's the daily source of my concern: My colleagues and I—from universities around the United States—work regularly with students who've "gotten to mastery" as defined and measured by standardized tests. Far too many of these students don't know how to reason, how to think abstractly—and they readily say so. Their goal, because it's how they've been schooled throughout their pre-university education, is to do what's necessary to get an acceptable score. They have no fire in their bellies to read, debate, or craft their opinions in writing. But without exception, they have completed acreages of classroom drills and passed tests that demonstrate "mastery." It is all they have known.
Ten years ago, those students were the exception at most universities. After a generation of defining mastery as proficiency on a standardized test, they are the rule.
As is generally the case in life, we need to think carefully about our aspirations and the words we use to describe them. What we define as our goal is often exactly what we achieve.
End Notes

1 Inzlicht, M., & Good, C. (2006). How environments threaten academic performance, self-knowledge, and responsibility. In S. Levin & C. van Laar (Eds.), Stigma and group inequality: Social psychological approaches (pp. 129–150). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

2 Berger, R. (2003). An ethic of excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, p.10.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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