Doing the Hard Work of Impacting Student Outcomes

Trenton Goble, Chief Academic Officer at MasteryConnect will be addressing this topic in the Microsoft Partner Theater at the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) on Friday, January 31st, at 1:00pm.

The current factory model of education is failing our students. It is time to dislodge it. But it is so deeply entrenched in our culture. It was born at a time when the thrilling but radical idea that America could provide a public education not just for its wealthiest children, but for every child coincided with the stunning financial gains of the industrial revolution. The notion that we could line our children up and send them through the same assembly line of processes and thereby achieve the same end result with every child was compelling.

But it’s a flawed model. Different students have different needs and learn in different ways. True education is more a process of discovery than it is a manufacturing process. What will inspire this child to want to learn? Which way of teaching this important concept will resonate with that child? The answers to such questions aren’t found in any text book or educational video. And they can’t be programmed into any computer system either. Teaching is a grand adventure and our teachers are heroes precisely because the answers must be found, again and again, for each child. Every year is like a voyage to an unmapped continent. Learning is out there but it must be discovered and that is hard work. It is not a linear process. It’s a process of hypothesis, experimentation and reformulating hypotheses—as much as any pharmaceutical lab at any big medical company. 

The hard truth is that there is no substitute for that process of engaging a child’s brain directly, in a personal relationship, and finding what works for that child. No matter how many new laws we legislate, how much software we invent, or how many speeches we give, somebody has to go figure out why Johnny Jackson doesn’t like reading. Or why Jacquelyn Jones doesn’t get ratios. That can be a hard slog—trying new things, teaching in different ways until you crack the code. And there’s nothing but to do it. Because if you DO figure out why Johnny doesn’t like reading or why Jacquelyn doesn’t get ratios, it can make all the difference to those children. It could transform their whole educational experience.

The good news is that there’s help. We’ve made some dramatic discoveries in the science of education. And there are tools the can help you be faster and more efficient in your classroom experimentation.

The notion of Mastery Learning was first posited by Carleton Washburne back in 1922 with his Winnetka Plan. Washburne had an idea: Classroom learning had traditionally always held the time allotted to teaching a given concept fixed and the level of comprehension in the students was variable. This not only kept the wheels of the factory model greased and rolling smoothly but it also fed in to widely held beliefs that some students were just better thinkers than others and that part of the job of the classroom was to reveal which students deserved the better jobs—since good jobs have always been scarce. But Washburne wondered, what if we held the level of comprehension fixed and left the time allotted variable?? In other words, what if students were afforded as much time as they needed to understand a concept, and prove that they understood it, before being asked to consider the next, more advanced concept. Maybe all the students could be  good thinkers.

In the late 1960s and early 70’s, Benjamin Bloom further developed this idea and actually coined the term “Mastery Learning” or “Learning for Mastery.” Bloom did experiments that proved the concept. Students who were given all the time they needed to understand something before being asked to move on were significantly more likely to take responsibility for their own educations, to think of the gains they were making as their own accomplishments and to perform better on assessments. But again, it’s hard.

How is a teacher supposed to track performance and individualize instruction for each student when there are 30 students sitting in the classroom? That’s like asking someone to be the parent for thirty 14-year olds at the same time. Overwhelming. And so we got stuck with the factory model and we’re still stuck with it.

That is, until now. Now things are different. Now technology has made Mastery Learning possible. Just like huge ships that used to take hundreds of crewmen can now be run by one or two, now one or two or three teachers really can individualize instruction for each child in their care.

How? By using assessment and grading tools that make the job of tracking student performance hundreds of times more efficient. By looking at data showing which teaching methods are being the most effective with the most students. While Jacquelyn may not get ratios, tracking what helped Sammy get ratios and what helped and Cindy get ratios and what else helped Michaela get ratios to is a great way to come up with new hypotheses for Jacquelyn.

Here’s the key: Nothing can replace the hard work of devising new interventions and trying them until they work. That is what teachers do. That is why those who downplay the role of teachers in the classroom just don’t get it. It’s all about the teacher. But we can equip that teacher with real time data on what Johnny and Jacquelyn know and don’t know. We can empower that teacher to work with other teachers who are trying to solve the same problems with other students. We can start holding that teacher accountable, not for teaching to the test, but for teaching to Johnny Jackson and Jacquelyn Jones. And that is a great place to start.

Schools are doing this hard work. Valley Middle School in Apple Valley, Minnesota, saw a 55% increase in math proficiency in one cohort of students from 7th to 8th grade by doing the hard work of tracking individual student performance against measurable standards and sticking with those students until they got it.

You could do it too. Now is the time for Mastery Learning.

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