Tag Archives: John Dewey

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.

Eckhart Tolle Meets John Dewey

20 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/20/2020

Professor Michael J. Hynes new book Staying Grounded; 12 Principles for Transforming School Leader Effectiveness inspired this title. I have an aversion to self-help writings and new-age philosophy. After reading two chapters, that is exactly how I saw this book. It made me wonder why my friend Diane Ravitch recommended it. After reading a few more chapters, I got it. There is a lot to like. If the principles taught in this book were widely embraced, it would be a boon to education everywhere.

Staying Grounded Picture

In the introduction Hynes tells the reader that he will reveal his ideas concerning the purpose of schooling and how to ensure that each child reveals their potential. He opens by recommending the “philosophy that recognizes the fact that all children are different and meet them where they are.”

This a great starting point but it runs squarely into the devilish nature of standards based education. At the beginning of the new millennia, the cruel standards based philosophy began dominating classrooms. It was heartbreaking to observe students who although learning; were not learning fast enough. Instead of being encouraged while their intellectual abilities grew, they were crushed and taught to hate learning. That definitely was not meeting “them where they are.”

The book started naturally enough with principle one. It opened by quoting the Buddha, “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.” The point was that a busy administrator needed some regular self care. Buddhist philosophy is known as the inner path. Principle one was all about entering the inner path. It ends with another of the Buddha’s admired philosophical points, “When things change inside you … things change around you.”

Principle two continued imparting more new age philosophy to fix the budding administrator’s attitude. The reader is assured attitude is more important than aptitude in the life of a successful school leader. A positive attitude is held up as key. Hynes notes, “90% of the people you complain to don’t care and the other 10% are glad you have the problem.” An amusing and insightful quote, but it still only obliquely addressed education philosophy and leadership.

Principle three, “It’s All About Relationships” brought a big change to the tenor and usefulness of the book. In a vignette, a Deputy Superintendent named Julio V. Delgado shared, “Like many administrators, I was chasing scores, looking for a magic curriculum to close the achievement gap, and best of all, looking at what other districts were doing so I could replicate it ‘back home.’” He recognized a fundamental error in his approach and concluded, “It’s the connections and relationships we make and foster among others, that lead us to success and serve as the ultimate model for children as they develop.”

In the organization of each chapter the principle is stated, personal stories are shared by various school leaders interspersed with explanations of the principle. There are descriptions of the principles benefit to all stake holders – leaders, teachers, parents and students. The conclusion is practical guidance for how to implement the principle. Starting with principle three this section becomes specific and challenges the budding school leader with concrete suggestions. This is where I started seeing the great value in what Professor Hynes was sharing.

What is the Purpose of Education?

This is a question of central importance to the development of our culture and civilization. Professor Hynes addresses it by stating,

“It is important to recognize that other people, including many of your fellow educators, administrators, and our students’ parents might have a different point of view concerning what education should be all about. That’s okay! What’s important is that you define in your own words, your purpose of what education is to you.”

In responding to the question, I decided to look a little at what Hynes and others have written. Hynes quoted James Harvey, the President of the National Superintendents Roundtable, “K-12 education should prepare students for life – for college, for work, for living within a family and within a community, and for participating effectively in the democratic process.” Although future employment is needed for most young people, Harvey believes K-12 education is more than just job training.

Hynes also looked back to the great humanist Eleanor Roosevelt’s thoughts on the issue. In 1930, she wrote,

“Perhaps because there are so many books and the branches of knowledge in which we can learn facts are so multitudinous today, we begin to hear more frequently that the function of education is to give children a desire to learn and to teach them how to use their minds and where to go to acquire facts when their curiosity is aroused. Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that ‘the true purpose of education is to produce citizens.’”

“But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective-informed and intelligent citizens, and, secondly, bring about the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and the action of our times.”

There is a danger lurking in Roosevelt’s view. While production of good citizens is an admirable goal, there is a dystopian risk of reinforcing the utilitarian view of human life. When she was writing these words, the Japanese and German education systems were focused on producing a certain type of personality reduced to a subordinate position and viewed as a means to other ends.

Daisaku Ikeda, the Buddhist teacher and founder of Soka schools, writes that Japan is suffering “the consequences of making education subordinate to bureaucratic and political agendas under the control of the Ministry of Education.” With the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act, the US abandoned the philosophy of local control and embraced the concept of a powerful bureaucracy steering education. As a society, we turned our backs on two centuries of steadily improving free universal public education and adopted a system vulnerable to political agendas.

That 2002 decision was a huge backwards step for “a society that serves the essential needs of education.” Columbia University’s Professor Robert Thurman, in an interview at Boston’s Ikeda Center, responded to the question, “How do you view the role of education in society…?” He replied,

“I think the question should rather be, What is the role of society in education? Because in my view education is the purpose of human life. It’s not that the purpose of education is to fit out humans to go and produce something.”

In his book Democracy and Education, John Dewey stated,

“Discipline, culture, social efficiency, personal refinement, improvement of character are but phases of the growth of capacity nobly to share in such a balanced experience. And education is not a mere means to such a life. Education is such a life. To maintain capacity for such education is the essence of morals. For conscious life is a continual beginning afresh.”

Dewey’s contemporary in Japan, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, wrote,

“What is the purpose of national education? Rather than devise complex theoretical interpretations, it is better to start by looking to the lovely child who sits on your knee and ask yourself: What can I do to assure that this child will be able to lead the happiest life possible?”

The purpose of education is to create the space for people to fully manifest their abilities and express their inner essence while going through the natural stages of human development. In accord with Dewey, I believe, “To maintain capacity for such education is the essence of morals.” As Makiguchi said, assure that students can “lead the happiest life possible.”

Create a Better Education Structure

The rest of Michael Hynes book is filled with ideas for improving leadership skills in education. He advices superintendents to substitute teach and goes into great detail about how to derive the maximum benefit from the experience. Hynes spends four pages discussing shadowing students. He describes how to do it and its benefits. Hynes addresses many if not most of the issues a budding administrator needs to excel at in order to be a positive change maker. Administrators adopting Hynes 12-principles will benefit not only themselves but also their schools, students and communities.

However, this book can also be seen as dealing with the unfortunate outcomes of the authoritarian structural flaw innate to schools. The central figure (principal or superintendent) have the predominance of power in a system where administrators rule. Under this organization the only path to professional advancement is leaving the classroom to become an administrator.

I suggest changing this undemocratic autocratic scheme by employing democratic principles of governance that shares power between students, teachers and administrators.

Create an educator’s track the leads to advancement as a master teacher, department leader and curriculum expert. Teaching assignments and professional evaluations would fall under the responsibilities of this group. They would hold sway over new hires to their department.

When it came to school policies and final curricular decisions, students would be consulted and their input would have real significance.

Administrators would be responsible for facilities, daily discipline issues and communicating with parents.

The three groups would meet regularly and continually engage in dialog to reach consensus on all school issues.


Michael Hynes’s Staying Grounded is a good read filled with many wonderful concepts for improving school operations. I recommend the book.

Finally, I really liked this quote Hynes shared from Aristotle,

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”