"There is a fluency and an ease with which true mastery and expertise always expresses itself, whether it be in writing, whether it be in a mathematical proof, whether it be in a dance that you see on stage, really in every domain. But I think the question is, you know, where does that fluency and mastery come from?"
- Attributed to Angela Duckworth
The concept of mastery learning is that you must truly master each layer of knowedge or skill before moving onto the next, thus building your abilities up from a solid foundation. Cara Johnson is the expert who facilitates, along with Jon Bergmann, the Flipped Mastery unit of the Flipped Learning Level II Certification course. Cara acknowledges that mastery learning is not a new concept, however, with the advent of technology that we now have access to, and the pedagogy behind flipped learning; we now have the ability to see the true power of (flipped) mastery learning as students are genuinely able to learn at their own pace.
"When a teacher decides to take the step ito go nto mastery learning they have to embrace the mess and they have to give up a little bit of control. Although it's chaos for the teacher, it's best for the kids."
One idea that came through from working through the flipped mastery unit is how important it is for planning to be completed ahead of time, that winging it or the ten-step method of planning (i.e., doing the planning in the ten steps before the classroom door) just will not work. It requires the breakdown of concepts and skills into discrete building blocks that can be individually taught and then assessed for mastery before the student moves on to the next block of the unit, rather than an assessment task which may cover three or four part of a unit of learning.
Flipped Mastery, says Cara, follows a simple little cycle. Explcit teacing (via learning objects in the individual learning space), practice and application, mastery check (at this point more learning and review may take place if mastery is not achieved), followed by moving onto the next building block when mastery is achieved. Once all building blocks in a unit have been mastered, the overall summative assessment is then undertaken as a final check.
I find this process really interesting, especially in light of a TED talk that I listened to recently We should aim for perfection and stop fearing failure by Jon Bowers
Jon Bowers talks about how the acceptance of good enough has led to a lowering of standards and is why medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States (250,000 deaths per year) and why thirty-four million cars are being recalled globally because a car company installed an airbag that the manufacturers thought was good enough. I do not think that perfection and mastery are necessarily the same thing, however, I think the concept of mastery, of truly knowing an dunderstanding what you are learning is somewhat akin to to perfection. It is certainly not in sync with the good enough mentality that sees everyone get a participation award in athletics, or the drive to ensure that every student passes a course despite not knowing or understanding the concept.
In (flipped) mastery learning, the student must demonstrate that they truly understand the skill or concept being taught before they are allowed to move on. That sounds incredibly similar to perfection.
One idea about mastery learning and having students set their own pace is that you will have an ever-increasing gap between those who will knuckle down and get on with it and those who will procrastinate, as well as those for whom things click and those who struggle. One very simple way to help get around this is to provide some guidance as to how long it should take them to complete each building block. Another alternative to this is to set signpost expectations such as you should aim to be at point x by time y. This provides some accountability for time for students and gives them something to aim for as well as some structure to work within. What this looks like will vary depending on the age of the students. The guidance that John gave was that he used his pre-existing pacing calendar, but broadcast that to students.
The structures within the classroom are also important. Simply having students enter and get on with things will add to the chaos. Jon and Cara both advocate for what Jon termed a triage moment, or what might simply be called a check in point; checking in where students are at as a cohort, noting any red flags that might present themselves, and ensuring that those who need equipment or resources for experiments or similar hands-on activities have them and are aware of safety concerns etc.
At the other end of the spectrum, Cara identified that it is critical to have a plan in place for the students who get ahead, who complete the learning tasks quickly. Jon comments that there are typically two types of early finishers, those who genuinely get the concept and are able to move through the tasks quickly, and the rushers. Rushers are the ones who just run their way through without actually taking anything in and are trying to get the task completed as quick as they can so they can move onto the next thing. How both of these types of students are handled will vary teacher to teacher, but a plan of some sort is needed.
Reflecting on my practice, this is an area where I struggled. The rushers were relatively easy as there would always be something that demonstrated they did not understand the concept, or that they had put no effort into their output making it unreadable. Those who genuinely understood the concept, on the other hand, required a different approach. It was no benefit to nitpick their output (though I have had these students who were also rushers), nor was it fair to them to constantly use them as teacher assistants. Developing meaningful, higher order thinking tasks at the upper end was a skill I was still developing, and an area I needed to invest more forethought and planning.
The Mastery unit was a really interesting one and Cara was an engaging presenter. It makes me want to be back in the classroom to put into practice what I have learned about implementing mastery. If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend you register for the Level II Certification course to take your flipped practice to the next level.