If you have shopped around for homeschool curriculum, you have probably encountered the term mastery learning. Some homeschool parents are very passionate about teaching for mastery, and homeschooling provides an ideal environment to do so. But is mastery-based learning best for your homeschool? How can you take advantage of some of its strengths? Here are some things to consider before making the switch to mastery learning.
What is mastery learning?
Simply, mastery learning is an educational approach that requires students to master a concept before moving on to new material.
Benjamin Bloom’s Theory of Mastery Learning
In the 1960s, Benjamin Bloom developed his strategy for mastery learning, or Bloom’s Learning for Mastery (LFM). His theory, aimed at reducing knowledge gaps, emphasizes the need for teachers to give frequent constructive feedback to their students and to offer individualized correction when needed.
Principles of Mastery Learning
There are 4 main principles of mastery learning in Bloom’s theory. Bloom believed that students could master any concept if several conditions are met:
- Teachers taught concepts systematically.
- Educators provided students individualized help when needed.
- Educators give students sufficient time to learn the concept.
- Teachers gave a clear definition for reaching mastery.
Mastery Learning Examples
Music instruction is often cited as an example of how mastery learning can benefit students. One of my daughters has just begun learning how to play the violin. But she had to learn a lot of information before she could ever play a song. She had to first learn how to hold her violin correctly. Then, she had to learn where to put her fingers to play distinct notes. She also had to learn how to hold her bow correctly and how to move her arms when moving the bow across the strings. All of that information would be completely overwhelming if it were not taught in a systematic way and if she didn’t master one concept before moving on to the next.
Math facts is another area where mastery learning can be very helpful. One of my daughters never really mastered her math facts in the lower elementary grades. She made good grades, so my husband and I weren’t really concerned. But in fourth grade, my daughter’s struggle with her math facts caught up with her. Math started to take a really, really long time, and my daughter’s grades suffered. In retrospect, my husband and I wish that we had spent more time mastering those math facts in the early grades before moving on to more difficult math concepts.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Mastery Learning
- Students can learn at their own pace.
- Often students will have the prerequisite knowledge necessary for each learning step.
- Students receive more one-on-one instruction and tailored instruction.
- Students may retain what they learned from instruction longer.
- Focus on a single concept may prevent explorations for deeper learning
- Parents/teachers may need to spend significant amounts of time preparing for and teaching lessons.
- Students may not be able to cover as much material throughout the year.
- Students may become disheartened if they struggle to meet the expected standard of mastery.
What is teaching for mastery?
If a teacher was using Bloom’s mastery learning strategy in a classroom, he or she would give the students an assessment to measure progress during a unit to see if the students had mastered the material. Students who passed the assessment (showed mastery) would move on to enrichment activities, but students who failed the assessment would ideally be given extra, individualized instruction until they succeeded.
Should you incorporate mastery-based learning in your homeschool?
Most homeschool curriculum providers advertise their products as either taking the mastery approach or the spiral approach to learning. With a spiral learning approach, students revisit a set of topics throughout their education, and each time they revisit a topic, they build on it.
Mastery-based learning and spiral learning are not mutually exclusive concepts. They can co-exist together, and they should. Students can benefit from the strengths of each approach. They can benefit from having extra time to work on truly understanding a concept in a developmentally appropriate way before moving on. They will also benefit from systematically revisiting concepts in more depth as they mature.
What is mastery orientation?
Mastery orientation is not the same thing as mastery learning. You can encourage mastery orientation in your children even if you do not incorporate mastery-based learning in your homeschool.
Mastery-oriented children are children that truly want to learn. They enjoy learning new things. They want to improve their understanding. These mastery-oriented children stand in stark contrast to performance-oriented children who are more focused on outcomes. Performance-oriented children see learning as a means to an end (good grades, scholarships, etc.) rather than the end itself.
On the surface, performance-oriented children may seem more successful. They often are the ones who get the highest grades, win the scholarships, and end up succeeding in the workplace. But mastery-oriented children are the ones who never stop learning, who are constantly challenging themselves, and who are the most resilient when faced with trouble.
How to Develop Mastery Orientation in Your Children
Mastery orientation is not a direct result of mastery learning. There are several ways that you can encourage mastery orientation in your children even if you don’t adhere to a mastery-learning method in your homeschool. Here are a few ways to develop mastery orientation in your children.
- When appropriate, allow your child to have some control about what he or she learns. Projects and extracurricular activities are good avenues for students to explore their own interests.
- Focus on the learning, not on the grades. When you do see your child struggling on a quiz or a test, remember that the quiz or the test is just a diagnostic tool—it is designed to help you know whether your child has learned the material. If your child hasn’t, that’s okay; you may need to work through some of the material again. Don’t over-emphasize the grade itself. Instead, emphasize the learning opportunity.
- Slow down and dig deep when your child’s interest is sparked. Was your child fascinated by the science chapter on fossils? Capitalize on that interest and take some extra time to explore the subject in more depth instead of just pushing on to the next section in your textbook.
Mastery learning, spiral learning, and mastery orientation all have their place in every homeschool. We don’t want our children to have learning gaps just because we pushed them to the next lesson or the next unit in our curriculum before they grasped what was being taught. We want our children to be curious about the world around them and to love learning. Homeschooling gives us the flexibility to incorporate the strengths of mastery learning and spiral learning as well as the opportunities to develop mastery orientation in our children for the best possible education.