Would you choose to build a house on top of an unfinished foundation? Of course not. Why, then, do we rush students through education when they haven’t always grasped the basics?
I will explore two ideas that are kind of the core, or the key leverage points for learning. And it’s the idea of mastery and the idea of mindset.
A lot of children and young people were having trouble with math at first, because they had all of these gaps accumulated in their learning. And because of that, at some point they got to an algebra class and they might have been a little bit shaky on some of the pre-algebra, and because of that, they thought they didn’t have the math gene. Or they’d get to a calculus class, and they’d be a little bit shaky on the algebra. Many of us grown up not liking math. It was getting difficult as we’ve got into more advanced math topics. By the time we’ve got to algebra, we’ve had so many gaps in our knowledge that we couldn’t engage with it. For example, me, I thought I didn’t have the math gene. But when I grew up a bit older, in the high-school, I’ve decided to engage. I’ve discovered new resources, new teachers who helped me to fill in those gaps and master those concepts, and that reinforced my mindset that it wasn’t fixed; that I was actually capable of learning mathematics.
And in a lot of ways, this is how you would master a lot of things in life. It’s the way you would learn a martial art. In a martial art, you would practice the white belt skills as long as necessary, and only when you’ve mastered it you would move on to become a yellow belt. It’s the way you learn a musical instrument: you practice the basic piece over and over again, and only when you’ve mastered it, you go on to the more advanced one.
But what we point out — this is not the way a traditional academic model is structured, the type of academic model that most of us grew up in. In a traditional academic model, we group students together, usually by age, and around middle school, by age and perceived ability, and we shepherd them all together at the same pace. And what typically happens, let’s say we’re in a middle school pre-algebra class, and the current unit is on exponents, the teacher will give a lecture on exponents, then we’ll go home, do some homework. The next morning, we’ll review the homework, then another lecture, homework, lecture, homework. That will continue for about two or three weeks, and then we get a test. On that test, maybe I get a 75 percent, maybe you get a 90 percent, maybe you get a 95 percent. And even though the test identified gaps in our knowledge, I didn’t know 25 percent of the material.
Even though we’ve identified the gaps, the whole class will then move on to the next subject, probably a more advanced subject that’s going to build on those gaps. And that process continues, and you immediately start to realize how strange this is. I didn’t know 25 percent of the more foundational thing, and now I’m being pushed to the more advanced thing. And then I start to disengage.
So the idea of mastery learning is to do the exact opposite. Instead of artificially constraining, fixing when and how long you work on something, pretty much ensuring that variable outcome, the A, B, C, D, F — do it the other way around. What’s variable is when and how long a student actually has to work on something, and what’s fixed is that they actually master the material. And it’s important to realize that not only will this make the student learn their exponents better, but it’ll reinforce the right mindset muscles.
And I don’t think that this is utopian. I really think that this is all based on the idea that if we let people tap into their potential by mastering concepts, by being able to exercise agency over their learning, that they can get there. And when you think of it as just a citizen of the world, it’s pretty exciting. I mean, think about the type of equity we can we have, and the rate at which civilization could even progress