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

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