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December 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 4

Perspectives / Mastery: The Game Changer

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      Technology is often touted as changing the equation for learners. It provides the means to learn anytime, anywhere, on your own, and in collaboration with peers and experts. Yet there is something, according to our authors in this issue, that could be even more transformative, whether technology-enhanced or not, and it is a research-based practice that has been around a long time. It's called mastery learning.
      Although the concept of mastery is difficult to grasp—asking for a definition of mastery is like asking for a definition of truth, justice, or God, Tom Guskey says—the concept of mastery learning is relatively straightforward. Mastery is a lifelong pursuit, not something to check off as completed, whether you are playing the violin or studying mathematics. It involves a deep inner desire to get better and better at a skill or content area—generally a goal you have selected yourself. Mastery learning is simpler—at least in concept. It is an instructional philosophy based on the idea of setting clear objectives, providing students with opportunities for practice, checking for understanding, reteaching in different and new ways if needed, and, finally, giving students more than one chance to demonstrate the attainment of the goal. (See "Research Says" for a fuller explanation.)
      Eventually, according to Benjamin Bloom, whose research established the basis of mastery learning practice, 95 percent of your students can learn a subject up to a high level of mastery. That is, almost everyone can master the original objective and then embark on new learning.
      As our research columnists Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller note, mastery learning is a promising teaching technique, similar to tutoring, but with the potential to be used with groups. Why then is it not being more widely implemented? And how could it be practiced more extensively and more successfully? That is what this issue on "Getting Students to Mastery" is all about.
      Here are just a few points our authors make:
      Focus on true expertise. Despite the claims of software solutions that help educators track endless small objectives, Grant Wiggins tells us, you haven't mastered a subject if you only possess skills in isolation and can produce them on demand in response to prompts. "The constant process of bringing the parts back together in complex performance is what's routinely missing from many so-called mastery learning programs." Establishing high standards—and not settling for good enough—is vital. We owe each student the facts about where he or she fits in terms of wider-world standards, Wiggins writes.
      Provide students with the time and conditions they need. Thomas Guskey and Eric Anderman note that students adopt mastery goals when they are allowed to resubmit assignments that need more work, are not pressured by constant talk of grades and scores, and are encouraged to make self-comparisons instead of comparisons against others. (Many authors in this issue describe ways to establish such conditions.)
      Think about it from the student's viewpoint. Claims of being mastery-based have been applied to routinized step-by-step learning that neglects the engagement of the learner. As Catlin Tucker says, "For students to want to master something, they must, first of all desire to get better. They must also feel that what they're learning or doing matters."
      Remember that attitude counts. Even that renowned master Michelangelo is reputed to have said,"Ancora imparo," or "I am still learning." According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, some college students she knows have no experience of the fire in the belly that drives individuals to pursue mastery: to do hard thinking, to read, to debate ideas, to push themselves toward excellence in a real-world pursuit. This is not really their fault, she notes. Because they have had to spend their last 12 years attaining the necessary grades and test scores, they have become accustomed to thinking only about what they need to do to jump the next hurdle. Mastery implies attitudes that characterize long-term success—including the capacity to delay gratification, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to think strategically, she writes.
      Get the word out. Mastery learning presents a dissemination challenge. It is not a solution you can purchase or a plan for what to do on Monday morning. It is not something that can be enforced by state or federal edict, but rather it is fostered through coaching and careful experimentation by thoughtful educators.
      It also requires a lot of work, both from the students and the educators. But it is a true game changer, the ultimate disruptive technology. It places students and learning first on the agenda. It assumes that all students can be masters at learning.
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      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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