Once Upon a Time in the West

A good, successful, famous and most sought out model (Mastery Learning) was forgotten. Why? Why was it smothered?

In Mastery Learning every student must reach a prescribed degree of mastering a concept before advancing to the next concept. They are not time bound, they just keep practicing until they master the concept. In this model students learned at their own pace, teacher served as guides and mentors rather than lecturers. Peer interaction was encouraged, peers helping peers was of benefit not only academically but in character-building as well. Some students might struggle, but none were given up on. In study after study, mastery learning model kicked butt when compared to instructional classroom models.

To run this model, each student must have their own text books and study materials to learn at their own pace – based on their passion and interest. Mass produced common curriculum text books won’t be enough because one kid will learn about Earth but the other kid would have went to learn Mars due to his passion on celestial bodies and space. So, educators and school have to give unique materials for every kid, every day.

Let’s get back to some history, In terms of making knowledge available to the many, the most important technology since spoken language has been written text. Early writings were so expensive, only privileged had access so does the special knowledge and therefore greater power.

And to make it clear how privileged a thing books were in their early days, think about how they had to be produced. They would be hand-copied by very specialized people with good penmanship. Consider how much it would cost to have one of the most educated people in your town spend a few years copying, say the Bhagavad Gita – definitely on the order of a Ferrari or Lamborghini in today’s terms. So you can imagine how many would have access to touch them let alone reach them.

Then came primitive block printing in second century. Now a skilled artisan could carve text and images on the surface of a wooden block, dip it in ink, and press it onto a piece of paper. This was an advancement, but books were still expensive. Depending on the number of prints, this could actually be more labor-intensive than hand-copying text. It is hard to inflation-adjust the price but roughly the cost of Rolls-Royce or Bentley, so well-off families might have one or two but they were by no means common place.

Then something epic happened in 1450 in Strasbourg, a German-speaking town that is now part of France. A fifty two- year-old blacksmith named Johannes Gutenberg decided that he could simplify the creation of the blocks for printing text. Instead of each block being separately hand-carved, he realized that the individual letter blocks or “type” could be made in metal once and put together on a block for a given page. They could then be rearranged for the next page. Instead of multiple weeks of a skilled artisan’s time being required to make a block for one page, it could now be done by a typesetter moving around type in a matter of a few hours. Even then it’s not cheaper but the cost compared to that of a Tesla, Maserati or Jaguar.

By the nineteenth century, movable type and the printing press had been perfected to the point that books were reasonably affordable in the order of a BMW, Audi or Porsche. By the twentieth century, textbooks became mainstream of education.

A small, wealthy school system like Winnetka’s could afford self-paced mastery learning model with surplus unique text books and materials, but the technology of 1920s paper publishing was expensive and impractical to afford at national scale. So, part of the reason for non-existence of mastery model, no doubt was economic. Also, this model needs retraining educators, it demands different set of techniques and skills to be guides and mentors, which in turn called not only for money but initiative and flexibility on the part of educators and administrators.

As like our politicians, they shot down the model as it required them to change. This is what happens when you give keys to the thieves and ask them to take care of the house.

Thirudanaai parthu thiruntha vittal thirutai ozhika mudiyathu!


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