Teaching for Mastery

You may have heard about or seen Sal Khan’s YouTube tutorials from his Khan Academy. He began creating these videos for his cousins who were in New Orleans, while he was in Boston. Now he has millions of people who subscribe to and watch his instructional videos and learn about a variety of topics.

Last year, Sal Khan was a guest speaker at a TED talk and he spoke about teaching for mastery. He noted that many students who seem to be successful in math and science lessons early on hit walls that cause them to decide they aren’t “good at” the topic and they give up on it. He reasons that this comes about because they didn’t completely master the earlier lessons. Even if someone scores an 80% on a test, they still didn’t get 20% correct. If 70% is still passing, a student must move on, though 30% of the subject matter was not understood. Eventually, a person may simply give up on the topic as the percentage of material not understood increases and the subject becomes “just too hard.”

So Khan suggests that we need to teach for mastery, that each student needs to have as much time as necessary to completely learn the foundation skills he or she will need for later lessons in algebra, geometry, calculus, chemistry and physics.

At this point, I was sure he was going to mention Montessori education, though he never did. Maria Montessori recognized how important time for repetition to achieve mastery was for all of our students, regardless of age. She observed that the number of repetitions required for mastery varied from child to child, driven by some inner need. Even the best teacher can not know in advance how much practice each child needs. By demonstrating the lessons, then freeing the children to practice, the Montessori teacher creates an environment where mastery becomes possible.

Sometimes parents question why their child is still working on a lesson given some time ago. Children continue to build their skills and often will return to a work and see it in a new light, now that they have more information. A common example of this is when students return to the puzzle maps to practice naming the countries’ capitals. They may have learned the country names already, but now they notice that the pegs for each piece are placed where the capital city is located. There is often a smile that accompanies this new realization.

Educating for mastery is fundamental to the Montessori Method. Being 100% prepared for the most challenging future lessons is always our goal.