Mastery Learning and Grades

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My son broke this board during his latest Taekwondo practice. He is gearing up to earn his next belt in a couple days. It took him eleven kicks before he could break it. His first ten attempts did not produce the desired result. After his final, successful attempt, his teacher told him that he was very proud of him. There was no discussion about the first ten attempts.

But what if he had been told that, even though he broke the board, he was not ready to earn his next belt because it took him too many tries to break it in the first place? I am afraid that this thinking is still way too prevalent in schools today. Just because you didn’t turn it in on time, or because you didn’t reach the same level of achievement as your peers, or because you took longer to learn than someone else, does not equate to a grade that reflects less than mastery, if mastery was indeed achieved. This thinking is wrong, even downright unethical. And if someone in the educational world is still handing out zeros, please stop. Like tomorrow.

Let’s not confuse the journey with the destination.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

9 thoughts on “Mastery Learning and Grades”

  1. So true. No wonder some stop trying. What’s the point if the failures add up. Soon you’ll be less than zero! Focusing on the positive and the possible keeps us going. With this approach, how do you grade?

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  2. Matt –this is so important. We are struggling in this same way as we are helping schools think about and make sense of standards based report cards. How can we have a growth mindset on some of these report cards? They don’t have a way to show growth just that they are or are not meeting a standard. What are you doing with report cards?

    Tammy and Clare

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    1. Thanks for commenting Tammy and Clare. Your thoughts help me think more deeply about why I believe what I believe.

      It sounds like we are doing more of the same as these schools, maybe even less. We don’t have standards-based report cards. In some ways, this might not be a bad thing. As Yong Zhao stated in his book World Class Learners (Corwin, 2012), when we focus on standards, we tend to aim for the floor instead of the ceiling. Kids may seem less likely to achieve a goal if it has already been set for them. Creativity and imagination may also be lost in this process.

      The limitations of grades, and summative assessments tied to standards in general, is a big reason why we have implemented digital student portfolios. Trying to represent all of a student’s learning with arbitrary symbols just doesn’t work like it should, if it ever did. For example, in our writing we can house images of students’ actual work along with audio notes of their reflections. This work is organized chronologically to truly show growth over time. That this can be shared with peers, parents and other staff members throughout the school year has turned our Portfolio Night in April into a Showcase/Celebration Night.

      The more we pursue new ways of capturing student learning, the less relevant grades seem to be. These are conversations we are starting to have in my school.

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  3. I absolutely agree with your thoughts on Mastery Learning. I have found it is a hard sell with parents because they are so used to the system we have had for so long.

    I believe that for now we cannot do away with letter grades. Our system is too steeped into it to abandon it cold turkey. Most colleges still require a transcript with letter grades and a GPA.

    One thing we are looking at in our school and in our district is what does the letter grade actually mean? When someone has an “A” in a Spanish class, does that mean that student is “fluent” in Spanish for that level (meaning an “A” in Spanish 1 would probably mean that a student can use memorized words and phrases they have learned), or that the student completed most of the worksheets in the class and brought the teacher a Mountain Dew to make up for the work they missed? If a student has an “B” in a computer class, would that mean the student knows enough about computers to get by, or does it mean that the student did “A” work, but turned in a few assignments late? We are trying to figure out a way to show proficiency in the letter grade system that we have for now.

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    1. Thanks Phillip for your comments. You are correct – abandoning grades outright will not solve the problem. Parents need to be involved in the process, and students still want to know whether or not they achieved what they set out to work toward. The types of conversations your school is having are ones I’d love to be a fly on the wall on.

      Let me say this: I attended my son’s Taekwondo testing event this morning. I have never seen so many people pumped up to take a test. We pay money to take these tests. Family members and friends come from out of town to watch their loved ones perform.

      So what’s the difference?

      First, every learner there was well prepared to take this test. They were encouraged to attend because the instructor felt they were ready. This, in turn, built up the learners’ beliefs that they were ready too. The confident that was instilled really ramped up the enthusiasm.

      Do we adequately prepare every learner to take the test? If not, why do we give it to them? Don’t we want them to be successful?

      Second, this was an event, a celebration, about their growth toward mastery. The learners saw this as their opportunity to show what they know. One of the instructors summarized the day quite nicely as they warmed up: “You all worked so hard up to this point, now you get to take the test.” This summative assessment was their just reward.

      Are tests seen in schools as points for celebration in learning, or just another reminder about how dumb or how smart someone is perceived to be?

      Finally, the process is more important than the product. Their current evaluation (belt color) was on full display for everyone to see. There was no shame or secrecy in being a white or yellow belt, the lowest in the progression. Adults and kids tested at the same level. Age was irrelevant. What mattered was whether or not the learners had mastered the necessary skills to move up to the next level. No one is expected to go from white belt to black belt. These small steps toward a bigger goal provide for many opportunities for success and keep the learners constantly motivated.

      Do we have and give multiple chances for students to show what they know and can do? Are failures seen as opportunities for learning?

      Phillip, thanks again for sharing your story. I am glad you are a part of my PLN.

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