December 23, 2013 by

Mastery vs. the Herd

Catlin Tucker on Mastery in the ClassroomBy Catlin Tucker

Catlin Tucker expands on insights from her article, “Five Musts for Mastery,” in the December 2013/ January 2014 issue of Educational Leadership.

Is it possible for students to pursue mastery, given the current constraints of the U.S. education system? For convenience, students are lumped into grades on the basis of their ages, with little or no consideration given to their skill level, interests, previous knowledge, or even primary language. Schools treat students not as individual learners, but rather as a herd, all bred to have similar characteristics.

This creates enormous disparities among students in each grade level, which, in turn, place immense pressure on teachers to cope with the needs of a broad spectrum of learners. I teach classes of more than 30 students with a range of abilities. It’s almost impossible to consistently challenge strong, mentally curious students while supporting and nurturing those who struggle.

The factory-era approach to school is in direct conflict with the pursuit of mastery. One-size-fits-all rarely proves effective. It doesn’t allow for individual interests, different learning styles, or time variations in learning. Mastery learning is grounded in the belief that given the right learning conditions, consistent feedback, and sufficient time, every student can achieve mastery. Just as traditional factories have changed because of technology, education needs to move into the 21st century and leverage technology to foster collaboration, encourage autonomy, and personalize learning.

Waiting for top-down change to radically redefine education in the near future is futile. Fortunately, technology is creating opportunities for traditional teachers, like me, to meet students where they are. Perhaps the right combination of tools and strategies can enable innovative teachers to embrace mastery learning in their classrooms. While the U.S. education system attempts to catch up, we teachers can begin to meet the needs of today’s students now.