Are Teachers Wrong About Mastery Learning?

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Teachers Throwing Out Grades
Teachers are throwing out grades and redefining mastery learning

When a teacher said that the concept of mastery is a problem, I winced a bit. I have often written that we must strive for mastery learning. Have I been wrong all this time?

I took the question to my favorite think tank–the global Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook groupI decided to ask the members about traditional grading, report card grades, and mastery learning. The response was overwhelming and the inspiration for this brief podcast.


The conversation began when I posed a question about report cards in a no-grades classroom:

If you’re issuing a report card grade for students in a no-grades classroom, and it’s the end of the term and you have to put something on a report card, how does this work? What separates an A from a B?

We’re sort of talking about mastery learning. The grade is something we want to de-emphasize, but until we’re completely out of the traditional grades world we have to deal with it. What I learned from the TTOG members in this conversation about mastery learning and about grades is that a lot of people contend that a final grade really depends on the class and it depends on the student.

A-Student, B-Student

One teacher in a no-grades classroom attacked the A-B and mastery learning questions this way:

I don’t think there is one right answer. We need to look at the situation; we need to look at the kids, and we need to look at what they’re doing and to tell them, “You know, you’re mostly doing this the right way” or “Sometimes you do this the right way.”

I’m somewhat troubled by subjective words that are open to interpretation — words like “mostly” and “sometimes”.  When I was in a traditional grades world, I told kids that how much effort they put in didn’t matter, because we’re talking about achievement. I don’t like that answer but it’s one that I used to use and it’s one that many traditional teachers still use today.

Let’s say an A means high achievement, but based on a certain teacher’s approach, a student gets an A because she tried harder than someone else. She may not know more than a B student, and this brings us back to the problem with traditional grades and mastery learning.

What’s Mastery?

Another member from the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group shifted the narrative:

For me, the concept of mastery is problematic. It endorses a view that education is about consumption, dominance, and competition. The term also divorces knowledge and instruction from its social and cultural relations. Education doesn’t exist to be mastered, to consume, regurgitate, and leave on the floor. Trying to sketch out what mastery learning looks like is a fool’s errand. A technocratic fantasy of control-through-measurement.

This got me thinking that maybe “Has a child mastered something?” isn’t the right question at all, and this is something really important–something I hope that you will consider and share with your colleagues.

Hacking Assessment

Is mastery learning really what we’re looking for, because if we say that students have mastered something, we begin thinking that maybe they won’t need to learn any more, and I wonder, is that really ever the case? Are we always learning and if we say I think you’ve mastered this and it’s an A on a report card, does the student think, I don’t really need to do any more in this area. This is when I wonder if mastery may be the wrong word, and do we need to send a message to our students that they need to continue learning at all costs?

Extending the Conversation

This brings the conversation back to the question about A’s and B’s and what’s really the difference? In the long run does it truly matter? Of course, there’s a whole conversation about the GPA and what gets our children into colleges and I’m really hoping that all of that’s going to change in the future, and I think that’s what this conversation about mastery learning, about A’s and B’s, about assessment, in general, is really about.

How can we move past these labels–whether it’s ABC or whether it’s, “You mastered it” or “You almost did” or “You’re not quite there yet.” What can we do to encourage our students to continue to work to learn to improve?

What can we do to get our students believing that there’s always something to be learned?

So let’s think about this issue more and, most important, let’s talk about it with our colleagues and parents and with our students because in the long run it’s only going to make us better.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books and other series that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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