“Student paced” versus/and “mastery learning”

My post from yesterday described how my 8 year old daughter, out of no where, saw the need the for individualized instruction and instituted it in her “classroom” (her bedroom where she plays teacher).  When I tweeted about the new post I used “#masterylearning” but then I stopped and added a new one I hadn’t used before “#studentpaced”

That post (and tweeting experience), combined with the one a few days ago about discussing the difference between Problem-based and Project-based learning has gotten me thinking.

I actually need to clarify my message.

When people come to my workshops or read my book they get the full picture of what I’m proposing in classrooms.  However, I think the “quick message” that people may get from a blog post here or there, or a tweet from time to time may be skewed.  And it all comes back to that old problem of we use terms and names for teaching methods and they end up meaning so many different things to different people.
I speak, write and think about “mastery learning” a lot.  But what I’m really passionate about isn’t “mastery learning” itself – it’s “student-paced” learning.  Mastery learning, however, is the vehicle that allows us to know what the individual student’s pace should be.

I’m currently reading Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.  She writes about her findings from investigating the educational “superpowers” of the world and the different paths they took to get their students to learn at perform at the “superpower” level.  She follows several American teenagers as they spend a year as exchange students in several of those “educational superpower” countries and at the end of the chapter I read last night she discusses the need for my “message” so wonderfully.

She was discussing how Americans, in general, feel about math and how different it is from these other “educational superpower” countries.  And why is math so important?  Because math is a surprisingly reliable predictor of a child’s future – teens that master higher-level math courses have a far greater chance of graduating college, and they also earn more money as adults, than those that don’t succeed in these math course (even when taking into account factors like race and income – the factors that so many claim are the real separators).

“It had happened gradually; first [Tom] hadn’t understood one lesson, and then another and another.  He was too embarrassed to ask for help.  He hadn’t wanted to admit that he wasn’t as smart as the other kids.  Then he’d gotten a zero on a pre-algebra quiz in eight grade.  In other classes, a bad grade could be overcome.  But, in math, each lesson built on what happened before.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to catch up.  It felt like he was getting dumber, and it was humiliating.  The next year, he got an F in math.” (Chapter 4 – don’t know page number as I was reading on a Kindle!)

“If kids like Tom and Kim missed one rung on the scaffolding, they would strain and slip and probably never get a foothold on the next rung.  A child’s first algebra course had lasting impact, influencing whether the student would take calculus in high school or give up on math altogether.” (Chapter 4 – don’t know page number as I was reading on a Kindle!)

If Tom had been in a student-paced situation, then when he struggled with a lesson he wouldn’t move on to the next until he understood the one he was struggling with.  If he is made to move on (either because of time/curriculum constraints/demands or because most – or even just “some” – of the other students have “gotten it” and are ready to move on), he will never have a chance to succeed in future lessons.  You cannot build a strong house on a foundation with holes in it.

But had he been allowed to take the time to step back and figure out the first lesson he then has a chance to be successful on future lessons.  Maybe he needed to have it presented in a different way, in a different application, from a different person, or maybe he just simply needed more time and exposure to absorb and connect the new concept with his current schema…or even more possibly, his struggle with the current topic could be due to a “hole” in an even more foundational concept that he was “passed through” in a previous class.

Without giving him the chance to move at his own pace he is doomed to repeated failures.

So how does “mastery learning” tie into what I now see is the more foundational issue of the need for “student paced”?  Because mastery learning provides the mechanism through which we can assess when a student is ready to move to the next concept – it lets us know what the “pace” should be.

And this isn’t just important for struggling students – it’s also vitally important for when a student “gets” something to be allowed to move on.  It allows students to understand that they have autonomy and control over their learning and therefore increases motivation and fights apathy that so many bright students develop early at some point in their educational careers when they finally realized that they’re never going to be allowed to be “not bored” because they have to wait for everyone else (or some other arbitrary event like a “curriculum map” to tell them it’s time to move on to the next topic).

So I’m clarifying my message.  What I’m calling for is student-paced instruction with mastery learning as the benchmark for what each student’s pace should be.  And I’ll start using the “#studentpaced” more!

And this is why I love the power of blogging…through this medium and sharing with other educators I am able to communicate, and more importantly I think, clarify my beliefs, goals and messages.

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.”  This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.  Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the User of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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