Mastery Learning

I just finished watching a very interesting and pertinent TED talk by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy.  He does a very nice job of describing Mastery Learning and contrasting it with the typical model for pacing instruction in classrooms.

In most classrooms, what is held constant for students is the amount of time that they have to study a particular topic, and what varies is the performance that students achieve at the end of that time.  Some students will perform at a very high level, some will perform at a very low level, and a fair number will perform at a middling level.

While we take this arrangement for granted in a school setting, Khan gives a clever example to suggest just how unusual it is in many other contexts.  For instance, he muses, what would happen if we applied this system to home building?  A homeowner would tell her contractor, “Please build my foundation.  You have 2 weeks.  Do the best you can.”  There is some rain, and some supplies don’t arrive when expected.  The inspector comes to evaluate the foundation after 2 weeks and finds some problems.  “I’ll give it an 80%,” he says, and work on the rest of the house continues using the same system of evaluation.  Of course, eventually the problems at each step add up and the house tumbles down before it was completed.

Khan adds that it is not only in home-building but in many other areas of endeavor that mastery of a lower level is required before a person moves on to the next, more complicated levels.  He offers the study of martial arts and music as examples.

What would happen, though, if we adopted mastery learning in schools, if we made what varied was the amount of time the students took to learn some material, but what was constant was that they achieved a very high, nearly perfect level of performance?

There would be some dramatic changes.  First of all, achievement would soar.  Learning material at higher levels would improve dramatically because students wouldn’t be encountering the material with gaps in the set of skills they need to perform the more complicated tasks.  Also, the learning would be easier and take less time.

In addition to improvements in performance, there would also be a profound change in students’ attitudes toward their own learning, what Khan refers to as “mindset.”  Too often now poor performance is viewed by both students and parents (and often, unfortunately, by teachers) as a matter of biological destiny.  That is, there is a belief that students who perform poorly don’t have the cognitive equipment to perform at a high level. But there is little evidence that this is really the case. Indeed, on the contrary, there is considerable evidence that putting in effort at a task (if it is leveled and structured properly, of course) yields high levels of skill.  If virtually all students were expected to master each level of a subject, they would come to view their own learning much more in terms of their own effort and perseverance.  They would come to see failure at a task not as a sign of lack of ability, but simply as an indication that they need some more study and practice. 

Mastery Learning is hardly a new idea.  I first encountered it years ago when learning about the Morningside Academy in Seattle and it  is a central part of a fairly old and well-established program called Precision Teaching.

Those of you familiar with Precision Teaching know that there are a couple of additional points that need to be made to round out the excellent introduction to Mastery Learning that Sal Khan presents in his video.  One is the idea of tool skills, that is, fundamental skills that are combined to allow for a person to perform more complex tasks.  Identifying these tool skills properly is essential.  The other important idea is that of fluent performance.  It turns out that what is critical in helping people acquire a set of necessary skills for complex tasks is not that they can perform the sub-tasks without error (i.e., achieve mastery) but that they can perform the task correctly at a certain rate, which indicates that the task is performed automatically, with little or no conscious attention required.

I will write some more about these concepts next week.  In the meantime, I hope you will look at Sal Khan’s video and let me know what you think.