What is Mastery Learning?

Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.

 – Swami Vivekananda

As we recall my previous article, a tenth grade student doesn’t know to read, write or speak in her second language (English), thanks to the broken system. For a decade, we go to school and learn same second language, even then how come we don’t know the basics? How such an education model was designed? Why does it even exist in this modern world?

In 1919, before there were computers, or televisions, or antibiotics, a progressive educator named Carleton W. Washburne was named superintendent of schools in affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka Illinois. Winnetka was a manageably sized school with the community (parent, educator, students and school LT) willing to experiment and excel. In 1922, Washburne introduced what became widely known as Winnetka Plan, comprising of two radical concepts. First, all students could learn if provided with conditions appropriate to their needs and no one must be held back or put on a track that leads to academic failure. This one is aced by our government and education system, no student can fail until Grade Eight, kudos – but every student have the conditions appropriate to their needs? Let me give a rain check on this debate.

Before going to second concept, let’s see how our existing traditional model works. I’m taking the liberty to pick a leaf out of my school life as an example – 9.15 AM sharp, school bell will ring. By then we must be inside the school gate, whole school assembles for morning prayer. At 9.30, we go to our classes, sit in the place allocated to us, educator will come and start taking lectures. After 45 minutes, a bell will ring, immediately the educator will stop her lecture without even fully finishing the concept because the next educator is waiting at door step for their subject. After 2 such period, a bell for the break and after four, a lunch break. Similarly afternoon session comprises of 3 periods. Each time when the bell rang for breaks or end of school day, the next minute, we will run out of class without even considering whether the educator finished the concept or we honed it. We just ran home. There is nothing curious or compelling to tie us in the class, it was so boring – we love to go home and play.

Let’s come back to the Second concept, Learning is structured not in terms of time but in terms of certain target levels the student achieve. This is not 21st century idea, back in 1920s Washburne introduced this concept part of Winnetka Plan. He was advocating the opposite to then and now traditional model. What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what need to be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept.

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 Masterly Learning, students won’t be in tenth grade without knowing to read, write or speak their languages. They would have mastered the language. They won’t have ran home without finishing the concept. They would have practiced until they master it.

During the progressive 1920s, interest in the Winnetka Plan ran high. Students of this school system graduated with flying colors. Washburne himself became Edu Star and president of Progressive Education Academy. But then a strange thing happened to the notion of Mastery Learning. It soon went out of vogue and for decades, it was all but forgotten.

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

Didn’t you hear the School Bell? Done with First Period. Wait for the Next…