Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Teaching to mastery: How we naturally learn

My 9-year-old learns art techniques & origami
by practicing them over and over and over.

Hobo Mama wants you to know she's a professional blogger! Look at how professional she's being!

When I was new to the world of homeschooling, and pedagogy in general, I heard about the term "teaching to mastery," and it perplexed me. The idea is that you teach something until the student understands and retains it. You test as you go along, but if the student doesn't score highly on any given test, you adjust your teaching style and go over it again. What perplexed me was that there were teachers not using this technique.

It makes sense in a homeschool situation. Or, in other words, the reverse makes no sense. There's no reason I would, say, teach my child fractions, have them be confused and doing them all wrong, and then say, "Welp, that was all the time we have for fractions! On to geometry. You get a fail on fractions." I wouldn't hold my child back a grade in homeschool in some punitive sense, and, conversely, there's no time pressure to move up at a certain pace. We can speed ahead of things they've got down pat, and slow down for the more frustrating bits.

But then I remember my experiences in school, where teaching to mastery was not the norm. You kept up — or you flunked out. I was strong academically, so my two personal examples were in art and physical education. Fortunately, both were graded more on effort than skill, but I remember being criticized in art class more than learning how to complete assignments. In P.E., I remember being ignored most of the time. I wasn't worth bringing up to scratch, I suppose.

Obviously, this scenario is even worse for kids in academic classes who feel constant pressure to live up to expectations they can't meet. And, generally speaking, it's not the teachers' fault, so I don't mean to shame anyone. The whole system is set up as a sort of conveyor belt to move all pupils along at the same pace — slow for some and overly quick for others. This might be an inevitable drawback of large class sizes and emphasis on test scores and grade point averages. 

I was thinking today of the analogy of hair brushing as I was once again patiently working knots out of one or another of my kids' long locks. I don't stop until I can touch the brush to their scalp and pull the bristles down the whole length with nothing catching. Due to twirling and swinging and general childlike goofiness, there are always, always mats to work out. If I'm not working toward perfection and we're in a hurry to get out the door, I can do a quick and substandard job. I can smooth the top layers and the ones nearest their faces, and people won't notice too much how tangled the strands are underneath. 

But teaching to mastery is patiently picking up each lock of hair and teasing out each tangle until the whole thing rests free. 

Thinking again about how unschooling is how adults naturally learn, we as grown-ups use teaching to mastery as the default in our own lives, whether it's with learning gardening or baking or knitting or woodwork or painting or parkour or whatever. I don't mean we set an unrealistic interpretation of what mastery is — because certainly we can enjoy an endeavor we'll never perfect — but we don't shut down our learning and assign a grade and print out a certificate once enough time has passed. If we enjoy it and are getting something meaningful out of it, we keep at it. We keep growing and learning, and we move on to the next step when we're ready, not when someone says we must.

Teaching to mastery is the normal way we learn as humans, and I hope we can extend that grace of time to all the learners in our lives.

If you're stuck into the world of e-learning, 
you might also enjoy:
 Homeschooling in a time of crisis

What Will We Learn Today? Easy Homeschooling Activities


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