Flipped Classroom: Mastery Learning

The most common teaching method today is to break down the macro – the course in its entirety – into smaller, easily digestible portions – lessons – and design a logical flow from one day to the next. To measure the effectiveness of a particular lesson, teachers typically grasp students’ understanding by assigning and grading homework. When a student performs poorly on a homework assignment, teachers reasonably assume that they’re not getting it. The student is perhaps lazy. Or slow. Alas, you can’t stall the whole class on account a few stragglers. And, of course, data doesn’t lie.

This week, Tina Rosenberg wrote a short piece for New York Times’ Opinionator re-introducing the concept of mastery learning, especially as it relates to the flipped classroom. Though not a new idea, as with many alternative learning methods it has been all but blown over by the current public schooling model, one born from America’s once deified drive toward industrialization. In effect, the system tended to treat schools as a machine-like operative – put uneducated youngsters in, out pops a competent class of workers and citizens. In assembly-line fashion, every student learned the same courses, took the same tests, and was measured by the same yardstick of intelligence.

Unlike the traditional model, mastery learning humanizes the student. We’ve come to recognize that people learn at different paces and in different ways – so why would force them through the same static system? Even teachers who recognize this must follow their lesson plan. Stragglers, unfortunately, are left in the dust. I’m not going to reiterate Rosenberg’s points because she makes them so well, but highly recommend her article.

What is relevant for ed-tech is that, in a flipped classroom, the student takes the “lesson” home. Homework, on the other hand, is done in class, with the teacher actively engaging and helping students understand solutions. As with the traditional model, the take-home lesson can contain readings, examples, and breakdowns of key concepts. But unlike assigned homework, where the student must produce, on their own, some demonstration of their knowledge, the take-home lesson does not force output – instead, the focus is on input. At home, students should feel no pressure to produce – they should be given the opportunity to develop genuine curiosity in the subject. Teachers need tools to create a variety of course content and offer lessons that can suit a variety of students.

Another aspect we strongly believe in is a fair educator’s community. No one is better at making the mundane appear fascinating than teachers discussing their trade – I’ve gotten into debates with my high school chemistry teacher about the minutiae of electron valence (not something that, in itself, rarely gets me excited) and felt as if we were exploring the world’s most fascinating structures. As teachers begin to populate the internet with unique and powerful course content, it is vital that their work can be shared with others, and that they have the opportunity to be adequately compensated for it.

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