Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mastery Learning in the Press and Elsewhere

I'm a big fan of mastery learning (Bloom's Mastery Learning, in particular), so you'd think that I'd be happy to see it mentioned in the press and elsewhere. But I have mixed feelings. When people write about mastery learning, it increases public awareness about the practice. Raising awareness is a good thing, provided that the information is accurate and the overall representation is fair.

At the Coursera blog, there is an article titled 5 Tips: Learn more effectively in class with Mastery Learning. In the case of this article, the above criteria are met, more or less, and the author is presenting mastery learning in a positive light. But I do have a nit to pick.

In my opinion, the author's description of mastery learning is too narrow. She says, "In mastery learning classrooms, students must fully understand (demonstrate mastery of) the material before moving on to the next topic." Is this statement accurate? It depends on the mastery learning model. It is true for Keller's Personalized System of Instruction, but false for Bloom's Mastery Learning. And the only researcher mentioned in the article is Benjamin Bloom.

So if the Coursera article is pretty good, why post to nitpick? Think of this post as a prelude to the bad articles that I will be bringing to your attention. Most articles contain misinformation, and that's unfortunate, but understandable. (Everyone makes mistakes, me included.) But somewhere, you have to draw a line in the sand.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Making Learning Whole

If you're only going to read one book on education this year, read Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education by David Perkins, professor of education at Harvard. The introduction alone is worth the cost of the book. In just 23 pages, Perkins expertly diagnoses America's education problems and provides a prescription, a coherent set of instructional principles. In the chapters that follow the introduction, Perkins explores the principles in greater depth, with illustrations and evidence.

The Ailments: Elementitis and Aboutitis

Perkins summarizes America's education problems by coining two terms: elementitis and aboutitis.

Elementitis is the tendency to break a whole skill into components taught in isolation. If there were more to the story--if students were required to bring everything together and practice the whole skill in a "real world" context--then this practice wouldn't be a problem. In fact, Richard Mayer has found evidence that pre-training (i.e. teaching the components of a complex process before teaching the process itself) is highly effective. But American students are condemned to perpetually pre-train. They are like athletes who perform drills, but never scrimmage, let alone play in a real game. So it is no surprise that they wonder (often aloud), "What's the point of all this?"

Aboutitis is the tendency to teach about something, but never provide a chance for students to actually do it. The classic example is science instruction. Science is a process of inquiry and experimentation. Science is also the knowledge produced by scientists engaged in this process and ongoing communications with their peers. Unfortunately, in American classrooms, the process that begat the knowledge is neglected. American students study theories and memorize long lists of facts and jargon, but they rarely hypothesize, experiment, and discuss ideas and results. In short, they don't do science.

The Prescription: Seven Principles for Making Learning Whole

Perkins believes (and I happen to agree) that the remedy for these problems is student participation in "junior versions" of authentic human projects. Junior projects provide a simplified, yet realistic context in which students practice whole skills as they pursue meaningful goals. In short, junior projects involve learning by doing. For example, students may learn about nutrition, plant/animal physiology, and agriculture by gardening and preparing a meal--all the while maintaining a journal with their plans, observations, questions, research notes, experiments, etc.

Perkins offers seven instructional principles, and he uses the analogy of sports to increase their memorableness and highlight their connections. Below, I've listed the principles and noted related educational concepts in parentheses.
  1. Play the whole game. (Project/problem/case-based learning)
  2. Make the game worth playing. (Intrinsic motivation)
  3. Work on the hard parts. (Modeling, coaching, scaffolding, and practice)
  4. Play out of town. (Situated learning and transfer)
  5. Uncover the hidden game. (Hidden curriculum and "soft skills")
  6. Learn from the team...and the other teams. (Cooperative learning)
  7. Learn the game of learning. (Metacognition and self-regulated learning)
Most teachers are not accustomed to this style of instruction, and Perkins recommends testing the waters by wading into "teaching by wholes" rather than jumping in head first. Teachers should add a few projects to their course rather than completely overhaul it. And teachers should focus on the first few principles rather than attempt to incorporate them all into a project. (The principles are arranged in order of importance.) Once teachers are comfortable with this new style of teaching, they may expand the projects and incorporate additional principles.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Rebutting Criticisms of Mastery Learning

Buffy: Uh-oh, you have "but face."
(Giles looks confused.)
Buffy: You like like you're gonna say "but."
Giles: But...this Initiative, I'm a little concerned.
Like the librarian Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, many people are reluctant to try new approaches to dealing with problems. In spite of its effectiveness and common sense appeal, mastery learning is rarely adopted by teachers, schools, or school systems. Why? Most people either lack information about it or possess misinformation about it. And some people are ideologically opposed to it.

In this post, I'm going to rebut three common claims about mastery learning.

Claim 1: Mastery learning takes too much time.

Mastery learning requires less time than people imagine. Researchers have found that on average mastery students spend just 2-3 minutes more per hour on their work*. How do mastery teachers accomplish this feat? They have two major strategies.

First, mastery teachers "front-load" in-class mastery teaching. At the beginning of the school year, they provide many in-class remediation/enrichment sessions. Then once students get the hang of the process and appreciate its value, these teachers begin to assign some remediation/enrichment for homework.

Second, mastery teachers prioritize some objectives over others. They know that it is better for students to deeply learn several important things than to superficially learn numerous things (that they just forget because they merely memorized the information). In fact, the most important multimedia learning principle that you will not find on my site is the coherency principle, which states that teachers should present essential information in an organized way and exclude non-essential information. In short, it says, "Oftentimes less is more."

*Kulik, C.C., Kulik, J.A., & Bangert-Drowns, R.L. (1990). Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60(2), 265-299.

Claim 2: Mastery learning slights high-achieving students.

Mastery models explicitly target BOTH low-achieving students and high-achieving students. With Learning for Mastery, high-achieving students complete enrichment projects. And with the Personalized System of Instruction, high-achieving students work at their own pace.

In contrast, traditional models do NOT target high-achieving students. They offer uniform instruction. So what's really going on here? Many people who make this claim are not proponents of traditional models per se. They are proponents of tracking, and they recognize that the effectiveness of mastery learning undermines the case for the controversial, but widespread practice.

Tracking involves segregating students based on achievement. Proponents of tracking believe that 1) achievement is mainly a function of ability and 2) ability is more or less fixed. Mastery learning defies these beliefs by reducing variation in achievement with a fairly small investment of time and effort on the parts of teachers and students. Moreover, the size and make-up of the remediation group vary from unit to unit, so it is neither fair nor accurate to permanently assign "low-achiever" status to certain students. These facts, among others, make tracking difficult to justify. Mastery learning is a viable, preferable alternative.

To be clear, I am not saying that students should be required to take the same courses from kindergarten through high school. Students, especially older ones, should be able to pursue their interests, which inevitably differ. But "different paths" should not be a euphemism for higher/lower paths.

Claim 3: Mastery learning doesn't prepare students for the "real world."

Every time I read a news story about mastery learning, I browse the comments section. Invariably, commenters assert, "In the real world, you don't get second chances."

Wrong. People DO get second chances. If a plumber fails to fix a leak, he returns to the house to seal the deal. If a doctor incorrectly diagnoses a patient's illness and prescribes an unsuccessful treatment, she performs additional tests and prescribes a new treatment. And so on.

Even if it were true that adults don't get second chances in the workplace, would that be a compelling reason to prohibit children from being able to redo/revise assignments in school? No! Schools should endeavor to provide an environment in which students can experiment, take risks, and occasionally fail. Failure leads to success when students are afforded the opportunity to analyze, reflect, and improve.
Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.

John Dewey, Experience and Education