How Does Mastery-Based Learning Help Children Grow?

Mastery of subjects

Children are our future and only hope to a brighter world that is free of inhibitions & reservations. To educate these children to take their place in the 21st Century, a future that we can’t imagine, we need to give them a strong base of the fundamentals inclusive of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, as they make their way to the top. The future needs learners, who turn out to be masters, not just achievers. 

How does one build a pyramid?

We build the foundation first, then the storeys, and the conical apex on top. What if we construct it upside down, or build storeys on a wet foundation? The pyramid will collapse! Same applies in the case of children. For them to reach the peak of their potential, we must first create a strong base to facilitate higher learning in subsequent stages.

While grades are still the prevailing indicators of a child’s learning capability and success, as they jump from one level to another, too much focus on the grades and scores interferes with a child’s learning abilities and prevent him/her from recognising their true potential.

Unfortunately, we’re conditioned to view the class-duration, resources, and material as ‘fixed’ indicators. Therefore, learning outcomes are variable for students, as each child may not necessarily understand the concept completely, in a pre-defined time period. By fixing the indicators, we fail to identify the learning gaps, strengths and weaknesses of our children.

Contrary to the common notion, the ‘learning outcome’ must be fixed– which is prowess in subjects, or developing an understanding of the subject matter and generating interest for the next level, not just getting the best grades. The learning time and method should be variable, for enabling students to exercise agency over their abilities and to achieve level-wise mastery.

This brings us to an important question—When do you achieve mastery over any subject?

  • When we have a perfect clarity of what we’re doing.

Perfection takes time. So, does the process to gain clarity. Here, by ‘perfection’ we mean, ‘complete embodiment of a concept, driving us towards excellence’. It shouldn’t be confused with attaining flawlessness.

With answers to every ‘why?’ ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ we gain perfect clarity at every smallest step of what we are doing. So, will the children.

Telling children why they need to study science to be a scientist, or why they must read as much as they can, to deliver their literary masterstroke, or what they can expect when they dissect an insect vs. a frog, or how maths is in our lives every day and more will help them to qualify and reason out the need. Clarity of thoughts, objectives, and purpose makes it easier for students to apply information.

Next time do let your child know why s/he needs to do whatever you expect them to do, even if it is a ‘simple’ application of tables or formulae.

  • When skills become our second nature with practice.

What is 2 + 3? You didn’t need to think that much. The answer came naturally to you.

What is 10 + 13? Here, you might have to think a little, but you easily figured out the answer.

What is 37865 + 78905? Here’s where we switch to pen-paper or depend on our calculators for the answer. Why?

It’s because adding 1/2-digit numbers has become second nature to us, as we’ve done it several times in our childhood. However, we don’t usually compute more than 4 digits without a calculator. Therefore, it’s a bit difficult to do mental maths involving more than 4 digits on the spot.

Similarly, it’s easier to play a ‘Happy Birthday’ tune on the piano. But, what if we’re supposed to play Beethoven’s or Mozart’s symphonies? We practise hard until it becomes our second nature.

How can kids make something their second nature? – By implementing and practising it enough number of times in relevant everyday situations, beyond paper & pen limits, until the body and mind become accustomed to it.

We need to lead children to believe that skills are cultivable. When students modify their learning techniques with meaningful practice, as per the feedback received, they perform better and cultivate higher-order skills.

  • When instincts become better & beyond logic.

According to the bestselling author Robert Greene, practice becomes easier and engaging when we start combining our skills in multiple ways. Mastery is sharpening skills to the point where we don’t have to exert many efforts to find the answer—like a surgeon, who has been tackling medical issues for so long that after a while, he can easily identify a disease just by looking at the preliminary symptoms. It comes as a part of the instincts.

According to George Leonard, there are four types of learners—

  1. The Dabbler – one who starts with great enthusiasm and as the level of difficulty rises, they either search for an excuse to quit or start looking around for an easy way to reach the peak.
  2. The Obsessive – one who’s fixated on results and don’t want to settle for second best. They’re often tempted to take short-cuts to score higher.
  3. The Hacker– one who doesn’t mind skipping a few stages, as long as they can reach the top.
  4. The Master – one who has strong self-belief and believes in having a strong grip over the fundamentals to creatively use their skills for attaining excellence.

A child can be at any of the above stages. It’s the job of the mentors and facilitators to sharpen the reasoning power (aided with knowledge & skills) by asking questions to a point where the child can instinctively use reasoning to decipher logic and innovate. Seeking just answers shouldn’t be the primary objective of questioning.

Mastery depends on how we know, what we know, and why we know and whether we use the right tools and skills to accomplish the desired goal.

So, next time will you just question to get answers or will you help children find answers on their own?

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