Tag Archives: Benjamin Bloom

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.