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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Computers enable mastery learning

Mastery learning — enabled by technology — is gaining popularity, reports Kyle Spencer in the New York Times

Moheeb Kaied, a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, knows his computational profile. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”

A learning outcomes chart. Photo: Sam Hodgson/New York Times

Moheeb’s school no longer uses traditional letter grades, writes Spencer. “At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready.”

Students can move forward quickly or take more time to show mastery, he writes. “Students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers.”

The school is one of New York City’s lab schools experimenting with the strategy through the Mastery Collaborative. 

Elsewhere, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire are phasing in mastery learning.  Chicago and other Illinois districts are testing the idea.

Mastery-based learning was proposed in the 1960s, but “not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers,” writes Spencer. “Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.”

Critics say it may work for math, but not for humanities. Others think students may pass a “mastery” test, but forget the material quickly if they don’t return to it.

In Summit’s personalized-learning model, which I wrote about in Education Next, self-paced work to mastery is combined with project-based learning to enable students to use their skills — not just pass skills tests.

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