Easy ways any educator can lead the shift to mastery learning

Leading from where you are


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

During a series of recent workshops on mastery learning, I had the opportunity to engage with educators from all levels who shared a curiosity and enthusiasm about mastery learning. At the conclusion of the first sessions, I was struck by two commonly asked questions:

  1.  If we know mastery is the right thing to do,  why aren’t we doing it?
  2.  Who is responsible for making it happen?

Here’s my answer: we (collectively) aren’t doing it, because we (individually) aren’t leading the charge.

Instead, WE are waiting…

  • For another school or district to show us the way.
  • For our colleagues, principal, superintendent, school committee, state department of ed to grant permission.
  • For colleges to embrace different ways of grading.
  • For parents to be comfortable with change

And so on, and so on. 

But students can’t wait.  More than 50 years ago, Benjamin Bloom showed us that virtually all students can learn at high levels if we educators vary instruction and time (Guskey, 2015).  Since then, others, including Sal Khan of Khan Academy, have given us quantitative proof that the approach allows students to fill in gaps and then soar alongside or above their peers.  

And still, we wait.

And as we do, we watch as students fall behind, fail, and become disengaged.  We watch as other students remain bored, tied to a pacing guide that refuses to allow them to expand their learning and follow their passions.

It’s time to stop waiting and start doing.  Regardless of your role, you can implement facets of mastery learning and, in turn, influence greater changes. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Steven Covey explained that proactive people focus on what they can control.  By doing so, they expand their circle of influence.  Whatever your role, you can focus on your area of control. As you do, you see your influence grow.  

When I shared this in the workshops, a participant said, “Lori, sounds like you’re advocating a grassroots movement.” And so I am.  

Yes, state boards of education, school committees, universities, and others need to come on board.  It can be frustrating to be the only teacher in your school, or principal in your district, or superintendent in your region who is trying to make this shift.  There are numerous interconnected practices, policies, and structures that must be adapted to make this work for all students.  

Nonetheless, those of us who are curious and courageous can start where we are.  Here are some examples:

  • If I am a Teacher, I can control  Allow Retakes and Redos which may influence other teachers to try it, students to advocate for them, parents to buzz about how much their students are learning.
  • If I am a curriculum leader, I can begin the next round of curriculum revisions with professional development and support for establishing power standards and proficiency scales.  Teachers will then see how those standards anchor student learning and teacher conversations and be prepared to continue the practice in other subject areas.
  • If I am a principal, I can cultivate curiosity and conversation about mastery learning during regular staff meetings and establishing exploratory subcommittees. At least some teachers will be motivated to try something new with their students and share their experiences with colleagues. 
  • If I am a superintendent/district leader, I can provide time and support for professional development. I can promote risk-taking and vulnerability.  Teachers will then know they have the freedom to try new approaches.

This is not easy work and it is not easy to implement on one’s own.  I think you’ll find, though, that as you get started, you will find more and more like-minded colleagues and you will help influence others’ thinking.  Imagine what we will create together if we all just start right now. 


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