Making good grades took center stage throughout my school days, college years, and even my post- graduate studies.

During high school, I recall playing a basketball game at a distant location, trying to catch a little sleep on the bus ride home, and arriving at our little single wide trailer knowing I would have to find a creative way to study for my first period biology exam that was scheduled the next morning. You see, my dad’s work day started at 3-4 A.M., and he had no sympathy for late night cramming.

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The solution I resorted to most often included crawling into my closet, positioning a small lamp nearby within proximity to an electrical outlet, then quietly closing the sliding closet door so I would not be discovered by either parent. By now you have probably decided I’m an overachiever at best or crazy at worst. The truth is neither.

Today, I’m convinced that my problem was one of uncertainty and ambiguity. Although I had teachers that were, in my opinion, the best my generation produced, the practice of stating clear learning targets, teaching to those targets, practicing to those targets, receiving both positive and corrective feedback consistent with my practice of those targets, being informally assessed, practicing self-correction, being formally assessed, and ultimately mastering those learning targets was not everyday teaching pedagogue.

Thus, being the slight perfectionist with a desire to memorize every detail, knowing my post-secondary education would be dependent upon academic scholarships and loans, and being totally unsure of what should be considered important or trivial, I resorted to late night cramming sessions that produced the necessary short-term recall for the next day’s exam.

Because I am intrigued by the variety of learning theories, practices, and programs that contradict common sense, when I was introduced to mastery learning or competency-based instruction, as it’s frequently called, after nearly 20 years of K-12 teaching, my tongue-in-cheek attitude inspired little more than a smirk. I simply wasn’t buying one more first- of- its- kind concepts.

Then I saw it in action! The only problem was that it wasn’t new; it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind; but it did accomplish what it stated – MASTERY! Reintroduced into 20th century classrooms by names such as Bloom, Blank, Keller, Skinner, Piaget, and now BREWER, mastery learning has its roots in the blacksmith shop of early America and the teaching methods of the one-room schoolhouse.

The goal of mastery learning is for all students to learn at roughly equivalent, high levels. Course materials are broken down into incremental pieces with associated specific, manageable learning targets. When students are provided appropriate learning conditions, tailored to their individual learning styles and needs, not only do they learn, they master learning. Mastery learning assumes the natural ability of students to learn when nurtured in a learning climate that supports that learning. Principles associated with mastery learning focus on LEARNING RESULTS, not teaching activities; FLEXIBLE TIME, not fixed time; INDIVIDUALS, not averages; and TEACHER COACHING and STUDENT PRACTICE, not teacher telling and student listening.

For the mastery learning process to be effective, teachers must have a vivid understanding of incremental learning targets and these targets must be clearly communicated and reviewed with students. A brief pretest is administered to determine students’ beginning knowledge. High quality multi-modality instruction follows the pretest, and students engage in carefully planned practice activities that embed the particular learning objectives for auditory, visual, and kinesthetic (or a blend of these three) learners. Formative assessment of learning directs subsequent learning experiences, and mastery is achieved when students meet the summative mastery goal. Most mastery programs require between 80 and 90 percent mastery of a learning target before allowing the student to advance to the next learning target.

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Instructional planning that supports and accommodates varied student mastery in regard to required time, provides opportunities for teachers to schedule enrichment studies for some while allowing time for others who require the extra input to achieve basic mastery. A key component to this open-mastery approach is the school’s attitude toward mastery and the administrative and instructional support that makes it possible for all students. Traditional learning holds time constant while mastery varies. Mastery learning holds mastery constant while time varies.

Mastery learning is the most empowering practice that I have ever applied in my classroom, both for my students and for me as their teacher. It focuses on learning, supports teaching, simplifies grading, encourages enrichment, requires mastery, and contends that performance results underlie the notion of mastery. In other words, mastery takes learning from thought to action. The WHAT, WHEN, HOW, and IF students learn in customized mastery programs distinctly separates them from traditional learning programs. I have watched proudly as students, considered lower functioning and basic, were empowered through mastery learning.

Whether it was because they got a second or third chance to test or because they were instructed in a way that met their unique learning needs or because their grade was based on mastery and not an average of every test they had taken, seeing one of these students empowered to learn simply because I practice mastery learning in my classroom confirmed that it is the right thing for me.

In conclusion, I must confirm the absolute brilliance of my teaching ancestors. Preceding generations understood education to be a vehicle that would transport young people to chosen trades and occupations. Essential skills required to perform job tasks comprised the targeted learning and learning was incremental. Small tasks led to larger tasks and demonstration of learning was required prior to advancement. Although the mass of educational research and teaching jargon has multiplied numerous times since those simpler times, frustration with an obvious descent in performance-based learning that empowers the learner to step from knowledge to practice has led our present generation to take a serious journey “back to the future” in educational practice.

I hope my doctor’s learning was mastery-based, and my dentist, and my hair dresser, and my car mechanic, and my nurse, and my anesthetist, and my counselor, and my house carpenter. Otherwise, they may have run out of time at the very unit that I need their expertise!

You’ve got to dance like there’s no one watching;
love like you can never get hurt;
sing like there’s no one listening;
live like it’s heaven on earth;
and teach from the heart to be heard!

Jan Brewer, M.A. is a health and fitness instructor at Lewis County Middle School in Hohenwald, TN.

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