Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Key issues in making mastery learning a reality

I've been working towards a mastery-based learning model in a few of my classes over the past few years, and it's a daunting task. Here's why:

First, my effort is based on several premises:

  1. Any scores or grades should clearly measure a learning outcome so that a student or parent or school can look at the scores and know what the students are learning, so that they can adjust and improve their strategies. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we end up with standards-based grading, rather than averages and percentages.
  2. Anything we measure (grade/score) we should also explicitly teach. For example, we shouldn't be penalizing kids for things like late homework is we're not teaching them the skills required to manage their time and tasks.
  3. Scores and grades are part of an external reward and punishment system, and if we want to motivate students towards real learning and creative productivity, we need to motivate them with autonomy, mastery, and purpose (A.M.P.), rather than threats and penalties and competition with their peers.
  4. Zeros are bad. Not only do they skew averages and have a devastating effect on a students average, but they don't actually measure learning at all. They are really just missing data points.
  5. The same goes for late penalties. They obscure the measurement of the students' mastery of a concept or skill.
  6. If mastery of the skill or concept is the goal, then there is no reason not to allowing multiple attempts on assignments. In fact, this could help teach perseverance and quality.
  7. There is no reason we couldn't measure things like responsibility, punctuality, and good social skills, as long as we intentionally and explicitly teach them and keep them separate from content mastery scores. And simply doling out penalties does not teach them.

So here are the key issues that have arisen:
  1. We don't have a standards-based grading system, so the student's grades are just "averages of their mastery," at best.
  2. Without zeros and without a standards-based system, our only recourse when a student is falling behind is an "incomplete," which has implications for things like honor roll and sports eligibility.
  3. Without late penalties and other external incentives for quick work, we run the risk of falling behind the curriculum, too relaxed of an atmosphere in class, and too much off-task behavior unless we do a good job with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Solutions I'm working on:

  1. Selling students on the idea of mastering the art of learning quickly and producing quality work--a key life skill.
  2. Providing a complete course of assignments that must be mastered before credit is earned, so the students can see how their pace is affecting their progress toward credit. Working on this today.
  3. Providing more meaningful and interesting assignments, to tap into the "purpose" aspect of A.M.P.
And why I care:
  1. I don't teach just for the kids who already know how to learn, turn things in on time, and behave appropriately in school setting. I teach for all students.
  2. My goal is not to be a filter, measuring students and judging whether or not they are fit for a diploma, college or career. My job is to actually get them ready.
  3. No it's more than that, it's to help them learn how to learn.

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