Equity is the principal educational aesthetic

I’ve laid out some honest and effective approaches to the evaluation of student work that avoid late penalties and still provide high levels of feedback, genuine motivation and a scalable structure.


But these approaches have to fit into the realities of time that we have in our courses. This brings me to the discussion of mastery learning (Bloom). An early commenter noted how much my approach was heading towards mastery goals, where we use personalised feedback and targeted intervention to ensure that students have successfully mastered certain tiers of knowledge, before we move on to those that depend upon them.

A simple concept: pre-requisites must be mastered before moving on. It’s what much of our degree structure is based upon and is what determines the flow of students through courses, leading towards graduation. One passes 101 in order to go on to courses that assume such knowledge.

Within an individual course, we quickly realise that too many mastery goals starts to leave us in a precarious position. As I noted from my earlier posts, having enough time to do your job as designer or evaluator requires you to plan what you’re doing and keep careful track of your commitments. The issue that arises with mastery goals is that, if a student can’t demonstrate mastery, we offer remedial work and re-training with an eye to another opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge.

This can immediately lead to a backlog of work that must be completed prior to the student being considered to have mastered an area, and thus being ready to move on. If student A has completed three mastery goals while B is struggling with the first, where do we pitch our teaching materials, in anything approximating a common class activity, to ensure that everyone is receiving both what they need and what they are prepared for? (Bergmann and Sams’ Flipped Mastery is one such approach, where flipping and time-shifting are placed in a mastery focus – in their book “Flip Your Classroom”)

But even if we can handle a multi-speed environment (and we have to be careful because we know that streaming is a self-fulfilling prophecy) how do we handle the situation where a student has barely completed any mastery goals and the end of semester is approaching?

Mastery learning is a sound approach. It’s both ethically and philosophically pitched to prevent the easy out for a teacher of saying “oh, I’m going to fit the students I have to an ideal normal curve” or, worse, “these are just bad students”. A mastery learning approach tends to produces good results, although it can be labour intensive as we’ve noted. To me, Bloom’s approach is embodying one of my critical principles in teaching: because of the variable level of student preparation, prior experience and unrelated level of privilege, we have to adjust our effort and approach to ensure that all students can be brought to the same level wherever possible.

Equity is one of my principle educational aesthetics and I hope it’s one of yours. But now we have to mutter to ourselves that we have to think about limiting how many mastery goals there are because of administrative constraints. We cannot load up some poor student who is already struggling and pretend that we are doing anything other than delaying their ultimate failure to complete.

At the same time, we would be on shaky ground to construct a course where we could turn around at week 3 of 12 and say “You haven’t completed enough mastery goals and, because of the structure, this means that you have already failed. Stop trying.”

The core of a mastery-based approach is the ability to receive feedback, assimilate it, change your approach and then be reassessed. But, if this is to be honest, this dependency upon achievement of pre-requisites should have a near guarantee of good preparation for all courses that come afterwards. I believe that we can all name pre-requisite and dependency patterns where this is not true, whether it is courses where the pre-requisite course is never really used or dependencies where you really needed to have achieved a good pass in the pre-req to advance.

Competency-based approaches focus on competency and part of this is the ability to use the skill or knowledge where it is required, whether today or tomorrow. Many of our current approaches to knowledge and skill are very short-term-focussed, encouraging cramming or cheating in order to tick a box and move on. Mastering a skill for a week is not the intent but, unless we keep requiring students to know or use that information, that’s the message we send. This is honesty: you must master this because we’re going to keep using it and build on it! But trying to combine mastery and grades raises unnecessary tension, to the student’s detriment.

As Bloom notes:

Mastery and recognition of mastery under the present relative grading system is unattainable for the majority of students – but this is the result of the way in which we have “rigged” the educational system.

Bloom, Learning for Mastery, UCLA CSEIP Evaluation Comment, 1, 2, 1968.

Mastery learning is part and parcel of any competency based approach but, without being honest about the time constraints that are warping it, even this good approach is diminished.

The upshot of this is that any beautiful model of education adhering to the equity aesthetic has to think in a frame that is longer than a semester and in a context greater than any one course. We often talk about doing this but detailed alignment frequently escapes us, unless it is to put up our University-required ‘graduate attributes’ to tell the world how good our product will be.

We have to accept that part of our job is asking a student to do something and then acknowledging that they have done it, while continuing to build systems where what they have done is useful, provides a foundation to further learning and, in key cases, is something that they could do again in the future to the approximate level of achievement.

We have to, again, ask not only why we grade but also why we grade in such strangely synchronous containers. Why is it that a degree for almost any subject is three to five years long? How is that, despite there being nearly thirty years between the computing knowledge in the degree that I did and the one that I teach, they are still the same length? How are we able to have such similarity when we know how much knowledge is changing?

A better model of education is not one that starts from the assumption of the structures that we have. We know a lot of things that work. Why are we constraining them so heavily?

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