Questioning Mastery Learning and Growth Mindset

6 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/6/2021

This summer the Los Angeles Unified School District is offering professional development and a salary point credit to teachers for taking the “Mastery Learning” training. The district’s statement of introduction says, “Mastery Learning and Grading is a growth-mindset approach to K-12 teaching and learning…” They further state that by, “… implementing research-based systems honoring individual variation in learning styles, Mastery Learning and Grading allows more students to succeed …”

Unfortunately, these are known failed teaching strategies. Mastery learning failed spectacularly in the 1970s and growth-mindset implementation in classrooms has been a disaster. “Research-based systems honoring individual variation in learning styles”, is a totally debunked theory. In the abstract to his 2016 paper, Paul Kirschner pleads,

“Finally, nearly all studies that report evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy just about all of the key criteria for scientific validity. This article delivers an evidence-informed plea to teachers, administrators and researchers to stop propagating the learning styles myth.”

Mastery Learning

The roots of mastery learning theory reach back to the beginning of the 20th century. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education (page 122) John Dewey stated,

“An aim must, then, be flexible; it must be capable of alteration to meet circumstances. An end established externally to the process of action is always rigid.”

Another professor at Columbia University contemporary to John Dewey was Edward Thorndike. He became famous in psychology circles for his work on learning theory. That work led to the development of operant conditioning practices within Behaviorism. In 1910, he created the first widely accepted standardized achievement test; it measured handwriting skills. In the 1920s, he focused on intelligence testing.

Ellen Lagemann, an education historian, wrote (Kohn page 7), “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes the Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”

In the 1930s, Benjamin Bloom appeared at Pennsylvania State University where he earned a Bachelors and Masters in psychology. Not long after completing his doctorate in education at the University of Chicago, he became University Examiner; a position he held until 1959. In 1948, Bloom convened a meeting of college and university examiners from throughout the country to discuss the possibility of designing a common framework for classifying the wide variety of intended learning outcomes that the examiners routinely encountered. Based on this work, Bloom published The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, The Classification of Educational Goals. By 1960, it was simply known as Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Vanderbilt University Published this Bloom’s Taxonomy Graphic

In 1968, Bloom published a small paper titled “Learning for Mastery.”His central thesis was that most students (perhaps more than 90%) could master what they were expected to learn in school if they were given enough time. Bloom, unlike Thorndike, believed that intelligence was not fixed and that it could grow. The paper, the taxonomy and work by John Carroll were combined to become “Mastery Learning.”  

The theory proposed that learning goals must be clearly stated for the student. Students were to be provided with some sort of lesson (mostly direct instruction) and upon completing the lesson the student was to be assessed. If they passed the assessment, they moved on to the next lesson. If they did not pass, they were assigned another lesson on the same goal. This process was to be repeated until mastery was achieved.

The “mastery learning” theory violated Dewey’s admonition that goals (aim) must be flexible but it fit perfectly with Thorndike’s behaviorist ideology.

In 1977, the Chicago and Washington DC public school systems adopted master learning. By 1980, they had abandoned the scheme as a failure. The failure was so glaring and so public that the founder of Outcome Based Education (OBE), William Spady, is quoted as saying,

“In January of 1980 we convened a meeting of 42 people to form the Network for Outcome-Based Schools. Most of the people who were there … had a strong background in Mastery Learning, since it was what OBE was called at the time. But I pleaded with the group not to use the name “mastery learning” in the network’s new name because the word “mastery” had already been destroyed through poor implementation.”

Spady blamed poor implementation but a 2018 research study said of “Mastery Learning”,

“Our objection to mastery/competency/personalized learning is about how a learner comes to develop that mastery/competency … Passing an MCQ test isn’t the objective of education; being able to “learn … how to learn…” and being able to solve uncharted problems are the objectives of education.”

Growth Mindset

Graphic from Page 11 of the 2017 National Education Technology Plan

The Technology Plan states without evidence,

“A key part of non-cognitive development is fostering a growth mindset about learning. Growth mindset is the understanding that abilities can be developed through effort and practice and leads to increased motivation and achievement.”

The US Department of Education made many claims like this one with no evidentiary support. To her credit, the creator of Growth Mindset, Carol Dweck, has acknowledged issues with implementation of the theory. She says,

“Growth mindset is even more complex than we imagined. In the beginning, as I have freely admitted, we did not recognize the complexity of the implementation.”

A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all.

Scholar Carl Hendrick notes that Dweck’s growth mindset research has not been replicated robustly and “like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character.”

Incentivizing teachers to study unproven and debunked education theories is like feeding them pedagogical poison.

8 Responses to “Questioning Mastery Learning and Growth Mindset”

  1. judiburle July 6, 2021 at 11:52 pm #

    Good afternoon. I am a colleague of Jan Malvin’s via Educators for Democratic Schools.

    ICYMI: Tomorrow, Wednesday July 7, the State Senate Standing Committee on Budget & Fiscal Review is having a public hearing on the Education Trailer Bill (AB 130). The time is defined as “after the Health Committee adjournment.” This includes, among many things, the new section giving charters a two-year extension on renewals, up to 2025. This appears as Section 43 in the Trailer Bill, and as Item 76 on the hearing agenda’s description of AB 130. Public testimony is available by teleconference. The above site gives instructions. I hope many people will speak up in opposition of this addition to Ed. Code.

    If you haven’t already broadcast this, please do! Thank you. Judi Burle, Educators for Democratic Schools 510-697-5586

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Duane E Swacker July 9, 2021 at 3:01 pm #

    “A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all.”

    And what were those gains in? Supposedly “months of learning” units and/or standardized test scores.

    It’s known that those two assessing concepts are invalid, totally bogus. Why would one use invalid concepts for assessing student learning. Which brings me to another thought. . .

    The only valid reason for an assessment is to primarily help the student/learner more fully understand where they are in their own personal learning situation and, secondarily allowing the teacher and parents/guardians to understand where the student is in that learning. All the other uses-comparing students, evaluating teachers, gathering (false as it is) data, grading schools, etc. . . are invalid and unethical.


    • tultican July 9, 2021 at 5:45 pm #

      “Firecracker” you make a good point. As invalid as this kind of analysis is, I think it is fair to point out that even the “accountability” crowds’ favorite pseudo-science does not support mastery learning. In Chicago, the failure of the program was evaluated based on the number of children who were not learning to read and were receiving failing grades.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. RageAgainstTheTestocracy July 9, 2021 at 11:21 pm #

    Let’s be real. Students from K to 12 rarely move beyond being novice, concrete learners.
    In addition, many are simply apathetic who can barely go through the motions, and at best fixated on the grades and scores caring little about the learning that they will never use.
    Witness the hijacking of any and all independent work (esp, homework) by internet “resources”. Check out sites like Calculator Soup (yes even you can multiply binomials with just a few clicks) or Chegg (the answers to every question at the end of every chapter of every high school and college textbook).

    Liked by 1 person

    • tultican July 10, 2021 at 4:02 pm #

      These posted answers did real harm to my AP Physics students. I would assign a group of practice problems and receive immaculate work back. But, when I tested the students with problems I created, they were clueless. I suspect they have the same problem at the college level. If students are not forced to struggle with problems, they will not learn but it is human nature to not struggle when you do not need to.

      Beyond this is the massive fraud known as credit recovery in which student are completing year long courses in as little as one day. Graduation rates and profits are soaring but learning is cratering.


      • RageAgainstTheEdu-Meddlers July 11, 2021 at 12:17 am #

        On the college level its much worse. Smart, tech savvy, and shameless, college students think nothing of using Chegg or any number of other internet “resources”. That includes purchasing subjective response from ” tutors”. You know that they’re cheating on physics problem sets when all the unit labels are correct. Ha!

        Websites and apps like Calculator Soup are turning traditional secondary math classes into a joke. No one sucks at math algorithms anymore. Completely changes the focus of math into one of problem solving and application in the sciences, engineering, statistics, and economics.

        On a serious note, this topic is getting little press but it is turning the assigning of independent work upside down.


      • RageAgainstTheTestocracy July 11, 2021 at 1:39 am #

        “it is human nature to not struggle when you do not need to”

        The path of least resistance is the student default. I guess its up to us to make that path internet proof.


      • Paula McDonald January 3, 2022 at 4:57 pm #

        Absolutely. My first engineering physics class at UC Davis was taught but an outstanding “staff” professor (or whatever demoted title they use to not him less)- he said on day 1: being good at physics isn’t any different that being good at playing the violin or playing basketball- you have to practice, practice, practice. Don’t read the chapter 10 times, work the practice problems, come to office hours for the ones you get stuck on, then practice them again.

        I can’t tell you how many concepts suddenly gelled in my mind months or even years later.

        Education of all ages requires a tenderness and X-factor to connect with people and explain things is just a certain way. But the education itself is not sporty- it’s a roll up your sleeves and do very unglamorous work.

        Liked by 1 person

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