The K-12 education system is rightly revisiting long-standing assumptions, expectations, and delivery models in the face of the disruption caused by COVID-19. Students and educators have been thrust into new experiences that challenge existing realities and perceptions. As we noted in Part 1 of this blog series, mastery-based learning (MBL), or mastery-based education (MBE), is emerging in response to school disruption as an important enabler to both accelerate learning and build a more resilient system.
MBL is certainly not new, but current challenges and needs do provide renewed opportunity. The question for MBL is, if not now, when? Education goals and practical considerations suggest MBL is the right approach when student performance ranges are widening, time is at an increasing premium, and stakeholders are more open to new approaches.
MBL can be approached in two ways—accountability and promotion or teaching and learning. Here, we look at the teaching and learning applications of mastery-based learning in the classroom, in school, and at local levels. What we don’t address here are the regulatory and funding models that would advance student-grade level and course promotion based on mastery rather than seat time (i.e., the requirement for a certain number of daily school hours and yearly school days).
A Closer Look at Mastery-Based Learning for Teaching and Learning
MBL provides the flexibility and differentiation needed at this unique time when learning and performance are reduced and gaps in student achievement have grown. Its benefits will be felt not only by students who have struggled during the pandemic, but also by those who have excelled.
In the typical instructional model:
- All students engage in a relatively fixed set of instructional lessons, learning tasks, and assessments at the same time.
- Differentiation is modest within a given time-based module or lesson, and students often work on knowledge and skills they may already have.
- Student progress is measured by performance on tests and tasks scheduled at a fixed time on the calendar with results averaged together as a “grade.”
- Students may lack understanding throughout their progress toward mastering learning goals.
In contrast, MBL enables content and activities to be matched to needs. Paths can be differentiated. Students can identify and address gaps where needed and advance to other learning goals or pursue enrichment when they show mastery.
At the core of this mastery-based approach is the explicit alignment of learning tasks and performance to learning goals. MBL is built upon the mapping and translating of curriculum, assignments, and assessments in a granular manner directly to learning goals. This includes test items and task rubrics. This gives students and teachers transparency into their objectives and progress.
Notably, MBL redefines the nature of student performance grades. In a traditional approach, assignment and course grades are, by design, the average performance across the included test items or learning tasks. This system can be gamed, intentionally or by default. For example, high performance on certain learning objectives or modules can mask deficiencies elsewhere.
In contrast, a mastery-based approach articulates student proficiency at the level of the learning objective. As a result, each student can be more easily matched to a unique, personalized learning pathway to address their strengths and needs.
Scaling Mastery-Based Learning to Address Learning Loss
Though MBL practices are advancing during COVID-19, they’re too often at the margins. A portfolio of approaches implemented in a more robust and systemic manner will be needed. These MBL practices range from scheduling flexibility to teacher teams and supports to extended curriculum and assessment.
Scaling MBL will necessitate aligning curriculum, assessment, and technology tools to diagnose, manage, and support teachers and students. Most critical now is not simply benchmarking understanding, but also understanding the pace and rate of student growth, including accelerating those students who struggled most during the pandemic.
For example, while traditional assessments are appropriate, they should increasingly now capture the expanded breadth of student achievement relative to their grade-level expectations. Assessment should also reach into more authentic measures and rubrics provided they are mapped back to learning goals.
Pathway to Mastery-Based Learning and Learning Recovery
While the shift to MBL will not be easy, the good news is that the pandemic experience has already introduced and advanced the concept. Schools and teachers have iterated their practices and policies to accommodate unique circumstances and schedules. They have been working hard already to provide additional instruction, differentiation, and other supports aimed at making sure all students have the supports needed for their success.
Ultimately, this model is also a starting point toward reforming the seat-time funding model, which will require policy and operational changes. Notably, the pandemic experience has likely softened the views of regulators and parents, all of whom are less likely to now equate fixed classroom instructional hours or age-based cohorts with learning progression.
Accelerating learning for recovery and systemic progress can be enhanced with MBL-enabled differentiation. Among the model’s greatest benefits currently are the opportunities to increase both the effectiveness of teaching and resource allocation. We must be open to all approaches to accelerate learning recovery now and innovate toward a more effective learning model for the future.
If not now, when?