Saturday, July 10, 2010

How Important is Mastery?

I have strong opinions about mastery. I struggled as a classroom teacher as I watched administrators direct teachers to push children through the system without focusing on what those children would take with them when they left; not considering what those children needed to make the most of their lives. Our responsibility, as classroom teachers, for educating precious children was often shoved aside because of budgets, government funding and standardized test scores. Even as I write this, I feel my blood pressure rising as I remember the battles I fought knowing that I would never defeat the system. It is one of the reasons that I homeschooled my children. I wanted them to have time for spiritual mastery, time for academic mastery and time for God to instill His mark on their character before the world invades.
One of the greatest reasons to teach mastery is that students develop a habit of learning as they master different concepts. The habit of learning provides a lifelong skill valued for many years beyond grades or test scores.
What is Mastery?
One definition of mastery states that it is the full command of a subject of study. What is the point of studying academically or spiritually if we aren’t ultimately going to be in command of that subject? Commanding a subject means more than memorization and regurgitation of information. It means a knowledge that can be deeply discussed, applied to other studies and thoroughly understood to the point that one can teach it. While this intense definition may not seem to apply to an elementary student’s grasp of the parts of speech, the general idea behind mastery enables us, as homeschool moms, to establish significant goals for our children and to evaluate exactly how much they have learned.
A simple example of mastery is the difference between memorizing multiplication facts and demonstrating an understanding that multiplication means repeated addition. Another example might be applying scripture to the heart rather than just memorizing the words.

Recently, God gave me an amazing gift. I teach high school Sunday school at my church and my son, John Paul, is in that class. One Sunday, we arrived early and were waiting on the other students when we began discussing how a wealthy man that we both know professed to be a Christian, but his daily behavior isn’t indicative of a believer. After a slight pause, my son quoted Matthew 6:24 –
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other;
Or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
As a mom, to hear my teenage son quote relevant scripture in the middle of a conversation brought a moment of sweetness that I will never forget. It may seem a small thing to many, but the fruit of God’s Word should always be sweet. This spiritual mastery of an important Biblical life concept is one of my goals for my children. I look forward to seeing more and more of it! J

How Does Mastery Apply to My Classes?
One year, I taught science in a private Christian middle school. It didn’t take much time in the classroom to realize that that the students had been basically trained to read, memorize and reiterate the facts laid out in the dull, lifeless curriculum. They were missing essential concepts and really had no idea how to even explain what they were learning. I took the paperback textbook, ripped it apart by chapter (middle school students truly enjoy dramatic effects) and told the students that we would use those chapters as reference materials as we learned. All tests went from being multiple choice to essay (they loved me for that!) and honestly, I was not a favorite teacher of parents or students at first. However, by the end of the year, those students could clearly articulate essential science concepts in both writing and verbally. We had awesome discussions. Parents and their Composition teacher appreciated my efforts. The kids never did truly fall in love with the essay tests, but they knew their stuff!
I teach my classes with mastery goals in mind. I don’t expect my students to just read the literature and complete the assignments, but my expectations extend to the display of a fuller understanding of the material, whether demonstrated verbally or written. For some students and even parents, this can be frustrating. The world often teaches us to accept the mere act of learning rather than aspiring to fully understand the knowledge and wisdom that God has graciously given to man. I have seen this played out in the education of the parents and home school students who previously attended public or private school. They come to me with primary concerns of earning credits and completing courses. Please don’t misunderstand…there is a practical need for our high school students to earn the appropriate credits, but their education should not be focused on that achievement. It should be focused on mastery of what they are learning.  
How Can We Determine if Mastery is Achieved?
Let’s say you’re teaching the steps of the water cycle to your 3rd grader and you want to evaluate whether he understands the concept. Various methods can be utilized to determine mastery, depending on your child’s learning style. Your child may draw a representation of the water cycle or verbally explain the process to demonstrate mastery.
It’s important when determining mastery to make sure that your child has more than one option for demonstrating what he knows. Some of the most common ways to determine mastery include:
  • Verbal explanation – more an older student, this may be a more formal speech rather than just a casual explanation.
  • Graphic rendition – this may be hand done or on a computer. Graphic organizers such as charts, Venn diagrams, plot maps, outlines etc may be used. Lap books allow students to organize information and then share what they learned using the lap books as a visual reference.
  • Written assignments – writing as a demonstration of mastery is actually a higher level skill because it requires not only written expression but also organizational thinking skills.
  • Kinesthetic model – physical models also assist some students when explaining specific concepts.
Sometimes a combination of methods works best. Examples include a lapbook and a verbal explanation or an outline and a written assignment.
The ultimate test of mastery is whether a student can teach the concept to someone else using whatever method works best. That someone may be a younger child, a peer or an adult. I often ask students to lead discussions online and in class if I feel that they can share their mastery of a subject with the rest of the class.
Mastery takes time and patience, but the rewards are beyond measure. There’s a tremendous joy in knowing that a student truly understands what has been taught and that he will benefit from that learning experience for his lifetime.
 Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
Then I will meditate on your wonders.
Psalm 119:27
God bless you as you plan your coming year!
In Him,