Mastery Learning: Where do I start?

Mastery Learning is the vision you can’t unsee. There’s no going back to the old system of points and averages. “What did you get? I got a 92. What? You got a 93?! No fair!” What is the difference between a 92 and a 93, I would like to know? Is there any real difference between what those students know and can do? I would argue not.

Do those students need to relearn that material? Or simply find their silly mistakes? Actionable feedback is a cornerstone of the mastery-based classroom. It answers the question, “so what do I do now?” This turns the educational process form a series of point-based destinations to a continual journey of improvement. Points and averages become irrelevant and distract from a learner’s actionable mastery to-do list.

As a teacher-coach leading teachers in a mastery-based school, I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have a mastery gradebook of choice that I liked. I was coaching teachers on mastery practices in their classroom and we were all just keeping student mastery information in our heads on a primitive, shared spreadsheets with a single-cell per skill per child to convey what they know and don’t know. Upon reflecting on this with my colleague Amanda, she decided one summer to throw together a more robust spreadsheet that could calculate a student’s most recent mastery on any topic based on any number of assessments you may have entered throughout the year. It still was not shareable with students and families, so the mastery data remained teacher-facing, which is not very helpful for kids.

I assumed that I hadn’t looked hard enough for the right product on the market. With school funds in hand, two colleagues and I embarked on a search to find an online gradebook that could give us the freedom to break down skills to the level of minutiae we needed as teachers and give students actionable feedback without slapping an average at the top of their profile, which (as we already know) simply serves to rank and sort children. But we couldn’t find one. We found a series of platforms that were retrofitted from a traditional mindset to be standards-aligned, but the standards were flat, could not be broken down and nested back together for reporting purposes, and the data was organized assignment-first rather than standards-first. You couldn’t see the big picture of a students individual profile as a learner.

That wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t willing to compromise on my mission or my students, and neither were my colleagues. So, with my co-teacher Amanda, we decided we had to make it. We had to build the thing and make it accessible to teachers everywhere. We called Ben, a friend from my days teaching as a Mastery Teacher with Math for America in the New York City Department of Education. Ben is a former teacher who had left the classroom after 10 years to build educational technology apps that could help make teachers’ lives easier. We told him about our vision, and by the end of that first conversation Ben was reimagining his former classroom with the tool we were describing. I remember distinctly in that first conversation that before long, Ben was finishing my sentences- that’s how much the concept made sense to him. He had no skin in the game (yet), but his enthusiasm was echoed by scores of teachers we talked to before and since.

So, we decided to jump off the deep end- to be the change we wished to see in the world. We decided to be innovators, not something teachers are typically described as being, but for which we soon found out we had all the tools. Innovation is about getting to know your user and their needs, about trying something and testing and trying again. It’s about having a big-picture vision while attending to small details. Do you know what that description sounds like? It sounds like the work that teachers do every day. We are the innovators. Who knows how our students learn better than we do, in partnership with their families?

We built MasteryPortfolio.com as a tool for teachers, families, and students to take ownership of their own mastery journey and to be empowered to take agency of their learning. We are thrilled to share it with you all. We previewed it with teachers at the recent Mastery Transcript Consortium Member Schools meeting, and one teacher said, “Everyone is scrambling to find a tool to do this work. It looks like you have that tool.” We believe so. It’s been hard work, but not in vain. We invite you to get messy with us, to give us feedback, to make The Mastery Portfolio what you need it to be. This is for you. This is for your students. This is for our future. We can’t not do this work. We have to change the broken system that hinges upon the ranking and sorting of students, a system that is unjust and leaves too many behind in a pool of untapped potential.

I challenge you to ask yourself: what’s my innovation? Is it dropping points from my class grading policy? Is it one-on-one conferences with students to set mastery goals? Is it using Mastery Portfolio and emailing me to be in touch about how it works for your context and your students? Pick something small, try it, and let us now. Let’s do this together.

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