Elements of Acton: Mastery Learning

  • Mastery learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Real-world projects
  • Socratic discussions
  • Identifying strengths and passions

David and I love the Acton Academy model because it brings together so many great educational frameworks and tools. Since it is challenging to summarize them all neatly, I thought I would use the blog to explore the different elements of Acton in more depth. 

Today I’ll talk about mastery learning: What it is, how we use it at Acton, and where you can find more information about it. 

Mastery Learning: What It Is

In the traditional educational model, a certain amount of class time is devoted to a particular topic or concept; when that time is over, the entire class moves on, despite widely varying degrees of mastery over the material. In contrast, with mastery learning, students proceed at varying rates toward the same level of mastery. The curriculum is not structured in terms of time, but in terms of target levels of comprehension and achievement.

A traditional learning model can keep some students from advancing when they’re ready while pushing other students to move ahead too soon. Imagine not being allowed to do algebra because other students haven’t yet gained a good grasp of basic math. Or, conversely, being expected to learn to read without an understanding of letters simply because the lesson plan says to move on.

How We Use Mastery Learning at Acton

At Acton, we use a mastery approach to core skills (reading, writing, math). All students work at their own pace, and advancement to the next level of material requires mastery of the preceding level. This approach allows students to take the time they need to understand the material they are working on. Some will advance more quickly, and others will need more time. In math, for example, some students might be working on addition and subtraction, while others are working on more advanced topics like multiplication or division. 

More on Mastery Learning

Here are a few resources on mastery learning that we like:

5 Myths about Mastery-Based Learning
Writing for The Knewton Blog, Christina Yu explains that mastery learning doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive to implement and it doesn’t mean that students aren’t challenged or that they are held to impossibly high standards.

Sal Khan on Digital and Physical Learning
In this Khan Academy video, Sal Khan says that in a traditional model of education, the time students have to learn something is fixed and how well students understand is the variable. In mastery learning, the variable becomes time and what is fixed is how well students understand. To skip to where Khan discusses mastery learning, go to 6:47.