It’s easy to get excited about the virtues of mastery, or competency-based, learning.

What’s not to like about a system that guarantees that students learn, as opposed to one that is focused on the amount of time students sit in seats?

My new book, From Reopen to Reinvent, makes a full-throated plea for more K-12 schools to adopt mastery-based learning, in which students only move on from a concept once they demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills at hand. When done well, it guarantees that each and every student leaves K-12 schools prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce.

Its emphasis on ensuring that all students learn the required standards and competencies is a far cry from today’s schools, where time is held as a constant and each student’s learning is variable.

In our current seat-time system, students move from concept to concept after spending a fixed number of days, weeks, or months on the subject. Educators teach, sometimes administer a test and move students on to the next unit or body of material regardless of their results, effort, and understanding of the topic. Today’s system signals to students that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something because you’ll move on either way. Mastery-based learning changes that dynamic, as students must persevere — acknowledging failure as a step on the road to understanding — in order to make progress.

Despite its seeming superiority, skeptics have raised four legitimate concerns about mastery-based learning that deserve serious answers:

1. This isn’t how the “real world” works

Why not let students sink or float on their own merits to prepare them for the “real world?” Isn’t it unfair to let students keep redoing work until they get it right?

No. The purpose of school shouldn’t be to model the real world. It should be to prepare students to succeed in that world. Putting students into a system that judges them at arbitrary points in time and then sorts them with little opportunity to change their grouping makes little sense. Compare that to a system in which all children master the skills they need to successfully do jobs once they graduate.

Think of Michael Jordan, for example, and how he didn’t make his high school’s varsity basketball team as a sophomore.

Were this our current education system, he would have received a grade—perhaps a C. That grade would have stuck on his transcript and hurt his future opportunities.

Basketball, thankfully, doesn’t operate like our education system. Jordan improved and became a star varsity player. He was evaluated for the skills he mastered and displayed in games, not what he had done at one arbitrary point in time.

The rest is history.

The point is that allowing students to improve their performance and redo work is a feature in this system, not cheating, so long as the assessment is robust—and not mindless multiple-choice questions prime for gaming. Working to improve performance and obtain mastery is the goal. In many ways, that is how the real world works.

2. Mastery-based learning precludes revisiting topics

It turns out that the phrase most used to describe mastery-based learning—“move on upon mastery”—is misleading. Although students might not fully master a particular concept at first, they can move on to other topics if those topics aren’t dependent on the one on which they’re stuck. They can then return to the challenging competency when and if it makes sense, rather than repeatedly banging their heads against a metaphorical wall.

3. Without valid and reliable assessments, mastery learning can be less rigorous and overlook the development of important habits

This critique has two elements.

First, it says that by focusing on mastery of academic knowledge and skills and separating that mastery from important behaviors—like whether a student turns in her work on time—schools are at risk of not helping students develop those behaviors.

This is possible, but it’s simple to counteract.

With mastery-based learning, students should still have deadlines based on where they are in their learning. The schools must constantly assess students’ behaviors and habits of success and indicate—within each domain—whether the students are exhibiting mastery or still need work. Moving to mastery-based learning ought to create more transparency and a greater focus on these habits, not less.

Second, critics worry that teachers might say that students have mastered key competencies when they haven’t in fact done so.

This is a problem in the current system as well.

But it’s an important critique because incentives are different in any system focused on outcomes.

Arguably, there are more pressures for teachers to pass students on through cheating or a lack of rigor in grading. The basic solution is to have a third-party teacher or assessor (who, ideally, the students don’t know) be the judge of whether the students have mastered the learning goals.

4. There’s no way to assess mastery of complex activities

Some argue that focusing on mastery of concepts risks reducing learning to atomistic parts that don’t add up to anything holistic.

The argument is, essentially, that although you can demonstrate mastery of shooting a free throw, the notion of mastering basketball is absurd.

If we overly obsess with separately developing someone’s mastery of the component parts (something traditional education can also be accused of)—shooting, passing, dribbling, and defense—but they can’t put these things together in a game, what does it matter?

This is one reason why those who practice mastery-based learning tend to focus on how students perform while doing real tasks and prefer to pair mastery-based learning with deeper and project-based learning.

In this way, the educators aren’t simply assessing whether someone has mastered foundational knowledge and individual skills, but whether they can put those building blocks together into something more complex.

What’s more, groups interested in helping learners advance in careers, ranging from the Lumina Foundation to the European Union, for example, have developed frameworks to measure holistic mastery in professional fields. (Note: the Lumina Foundation is among the numerous funders of The Hechinger Report.) These frameworks contain criteria to denote what level of mastery someone has demonstrated in a certain profession on a 1 to 8 scale.

We shouldn’t pretend that mastery-based learning will be easy to implement, but we also shouldn’t run from obstacles if overcoming them will help us better prepare students to succeed in a complex world.

This piece was originally published in The Hechinger Report here.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.