The Myth of Mastery Learning in Education

Sunil Singh
January 4, 2023
In education, the idea that one can master many ideas in a short period of time, and be subsequently tested to confirm this delusion, is one of the first bricks in the education’s wall that must be removed.

In the very first episode of A Cook’s Tour, we see a young Anthony Bourdain in a tiny sushi restaurant in Tokyo. As the camera zooms in on the bright colors of the fish and the hands that are shaping all the ingredients, Bourdain offers this wistful commentary:

In the exacting standards of the Edomae tradition, it takes a lifetime to master the economy and grace of movement necessary to make an artful presentation.

While some things don’t need a long period to “master”, anything related to the arts–cooking, writing, music, painting, etc,--are usually explicit about the domain of time in which mastery can occur.

It’s nothing short of a lifetime. In fact, those who are at the top of their craft, are the ones more likely to bristle at terminus for learning or a label of “expert” being attached to their understanding and accomplishments.

The sciences, for some strange reason, are not given that luxury of time. In fact, they have been historically difficult to mark progress in anything short of decades and centuries. Now, of course, understanding the basic ideas of writing and arithmetic, for example, are generally accomplished within the time frame of K to 12. Basic grammar and basic mathematics. That’s about it. That’s not any insult towards education, as those are healthy and achievable goals within a period of ten years.

Where the problems have started is that education got fast and loose with that word, to the point it became grossly entangled with anything to form the phrase mastery learning

On Dec 21, I posted this on Twitter:

It took me 10 years of teaching calculus to **really** understand calculus. Many ideas in math took decades to understand. Understanding that **understanding** is a luxury item in learning mathematics is alien in K -12 math education.

In 24 hours, it got over 60,000 views. 

It’s just not calculus. There have been other math topics that I was expected to master within the time frame given, that just never sank in to the point of understanding. Sure, my test marks would indicate otherwise, but I merely aped questions that I had memorized the steps. Procedural fluency is all I could muster. Did I truly understand mathematical induction or the cross product? Uh, no. Do I understand them today? Much better, but I wouldn’t want to sign off on that. There is still ample room to make the learning clearer and less abstract. Maybe I should go back to 1982 and rewrite some of those tests. 

And there is that gut-punching word. Tests.

If education was guilty of only failing to understand/appreciate how long it takes to truly absorb, appreciate, and understand something, then I am not sure if this blog has any teeth. The fact that education has the temerity to confidently administer tests, which already have historic anxiety baked right in, this blog is snarling with the teeth of the legendary, prehistoric cat–the smilodon.

The symptoms of such a distorted and unhealthy approach to “mastery” has been demonstrated by students since the beginning of formal education. They copy. They cheat. They plagiarize. Education isn’t smart to understand that these learning fouls are products of their own construction. Students do the bare minimum to play the game of education. To feign mastery, which itself, more or less unbeknownst to students, is the original culprit in this ruse. It’s not a game. It’s also a lopsided game where the poorest students always lose. As written by media reporter Alan Siegel,

The Wire sliced deeply into Baltimore’s decaying public institutions. "It is perhaps the only storytelling on television," Simon told The New Yorker a decade ago, "that overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be alright." 

Dismantling oppressive systems really means dismantling lies. Oppression only works with deceit and myths. In education, the idea that one can master many ideas in a short period of time, and be subsequently tested to confirm this delusion, is one of the first bricks in the education’s wall that must be removed. Learning has been reduced to being transactional and ephemeral. Learning has been reduced to winners and losers. The patience and desire to learn for a lifetime must be instilled in the hearts and minds of all our students. Education’s role should be a seed for learning, not a whole tree. 

Sunil Singh
Sunil is an author, speaker, math storyteller, porous educator, advisor at Amplify, music freak and geek and former Board President of Human Restoration Project.
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