A Peek at a “Mastery-Based Classroom”

As part of their “Future of Learning” newsletter, The Hechinger Report‘s Tara Garcia Mathewson gives us a peek inside a “mastery-based classroom” of fourth-graders learning math at Piney Grove Elementary School in Charlotte, NC.

“Mastery-Based” is just another phrase for “standards-based learning” and both rely upon “personalized learning.”  This trend is all about students working at their own pace with teachers providing support. A student does not move on until they have “mastered” the content which is determined, in this case, through a quarterly assessment.

Mathewson writes:

Every 12 weeks during the school year, students here take assessments to gauge their progress toward mastering all of the standards in the fourth-grade curriculum. While all students take these tests, Nealeigh’s pay more attention to the results than average. For her fourth graders, the test results offer a picture of their strengths and weaknesses, revealing specific skills they need to sharpen.

(Molly) Nealeigh (their teacher) helps them glean this understanding. She makes a chart, listing each test question under the standard it relates to (like “use place value understanding to round multi-digit whole numbers to any place”). Students calculate a percentage for each standard based on how many related questions they got right or wrong. When students get 80 to 100 percent of questions related to a given standard correct, Nealeigh considers that mastery, and the students don’t have to do any review. Less than that and students either have to work on the skills by themselves or, if they got fewer than 60 percent of the questions correct, with a teacher.

“The mindset is ‘Give students their own data and let them choose what to work on themselves,’” Nealeigh said.

We’ve written about (or pointed out articles about) where this trend is headed. The future looks disturbing. Teachers become facilitators of learning instead of teaching.  Much of personalized learning is not actually personal

Jane Robbins, when writing about what is wrong with the personalized learning approach, hit the nail on the head:

In her valuable book Seven Myths About Education, Daisy Christodoulou makes the same point about the necessity of committing knowledge to long-term memory. Everything the progressive educators say they want – including education as “problem-solving” – depends on deeply embedded knowledge: “When we try to solve any problem,” Christodoulou writes, “we draw on all the knowledge that we have committed to long-term memory. The more knowledge we have, the more types of problems we are able to solve.” And the stubborn fact is that (personalized learning) makes it much harder for students to increase their long-term knowledge.

In short, cognitive science confirms what all veteran teachers know: True learning requires structure, repetition, and work, not just ability to mimic something that pops up once on a screen before moving on to the next.

Just because students scored 80-100 percent on one assessment does not mean they don’t need review. As far as letting students choose what they want to work on, gee, what could possibly go wrong there? 

One thought on “A Peek at a “Mastery-Based Classroom”

  1. “The elementary time seems destined to be called the Tablet Years. The Mario Bros. Educational Principles will rule the day as students win points and pile up Magical No. 2 Pencils as they are prompted from one level to the next. Competency-based-education will erase all of those annoying human variables and every learner who reaches Level Extreme will see their names glitter in on-screen pixie dust. And an 8 X 10 screen-shot of that conquering moment will become the new moving-up document.”


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