Mastery versus marks in school and in life

I really love TED talks. For anyone who doesn’t listen to them or watch them, for shame. They’re excellent and provide a never ending list of new ideas and new spins on old ideas. I really can’t recommend them enough.

I watched a very interesting one a while back on the idea of mastering topics rather than the current model in schools today which seems to encourage that students cram as much into their head as possible, pass the test and then forget. Ahh, the good old days. I used to be very good at that way of learning. And today I’m not really certain what Pi is despite the fact that I took advanced maths all the way through year twelve. The rest of what I learned in those classes… nope, there’s just nothing there, though I think at one stage they were teaching me to calculate the something of an imaginary circle.

Real useful stuff there.

The whole point of the idea is that it doesn’t make sense to base education on marks. If a student studies something, understands about seventy percent of it and then is moved up a level, then what happens with the missing thirty percent? Knowledge is cumulative. With every subject, from maths to science to languages, you learn the easy stuff first and then build the harder stuff on top of it. But if you didn’t learn or understand the easy stuff properly than how will you learn the harder stuff? And how far can you go, with that unstable foundation, before the whole structure comes tumbling down?

There are a lot of issues with the idea that a student has to understand everything about the current and lower levels of a subject before they can move up a level, not the least that this calls for individual based school systems rather than the factory model we use at the moment. But I’m pretty sure that with the technology we have today, and what’s coming in the future, that it’s entirely possible. And maybe if it was, we wouldn’t have students falling behind in their maths classes because they didn’t understand in grade eight and so have no hope of understanding the grade ten material.

And so the question becomes, what is mastery? There are a lot of models of learning out there, of varying worth, but Bloom’s Taxonomy seems to me to be a reasonable one. It posits several layers to learning, from being able to remember basic facts, to being able to understand and explain concepts, to being able to use the information in new ways. From there it suggests that learning continues when the learner can analyse and make connections with the ideas and then evaluate and support their point of view on the information. The final level of this model is creativity. When you truly understand something, you can be creative and make something new from it.

As a teacher, I can’t tell you how true this final step is. With so many students I have seen repetition of new information, use within the context I taught it and very little more. Trying to get them to be creative with the knowledge just shows how little they understand. This is also true in my own life. When I learn something new I go through stages in my own head, of learning and reading and arguing and finding the gaps and finally I learn to make the knowledge a part of me and start using it in different ways.

When you look at it that way, this model seems natural and instinctive. So why don’t we use it, or something like it, to revamp our education system?

Any ideas?



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