The two ideas that, at least based on my observations during my visits and interactions to lots of academic institutions, are kind of the core, or the key leverage points for learning. And it’s the idea of mastery and the idea of mindset.
I saw this in my early days studying with my friends. A lot of them were having trouble with math at first because they had all of these gaps accumulated in their learning. And because of that, at some point, they got to an algebra class and they might have been a little bit shaky on some of the pre-algebra, and because of that, they thought they didn’t have the math gene. Or they’d get to a calculus class, and they’d be a little bit shaky on the algebra.
But then the comments got a little more intense, student after student saying that they had grown up not liking math. It was getting difficult as we got into more advanced math topics. By the time they got to algebra, we had so many gaps in their knowledge we couldn’t engage with it. They thought they didn’t have the math gene. But when we became a bit older, they took a little agency and decided to engage. They found resources to fill in those gaps and master those concepts, and that reinforced our mindset that it wasn’t fixed; that we actually were capable of learning mathematics.
And in a lot of ways, this is how you would master a lot of things in life. It’s the way you would learn a martial art. In martial art, you would practise the white belt skills as long as necessary, and only when you’ve mastered it you would move on to become a yellow belt. It’s the way you learn a musical instrument: you practice the basic piece over and over again, and only when you’ve mastered it, you go on to the more advanced ones.
But what we point out — this is not the way a traditional academic model is structured, the type of academic model that most of us grew up in. In a traditional academic model, we group students together, usually by age, and around middle school, by age and perceived ability, and we shepherd them all together at the same pace. And what typically happens, let’s say we’re in a middle school pre-algebra class, and the current unit is on exponents, the teacher will give a lecture on exponents, then we’ll go home, do some homework. The next morning, we’ll review the homework, then another lecture, homework, lecture, homework. That will continue for about two or three weeks, and then we get a test. On that test, maybe I get 75 per cent, maybe you get 90 per cent, maybe you get a 95 per cent. And even though the test identified gaps in our knowledge, I didn’t know 25 per cent of the material. Even A student, what was the five per cent they didn’t know?
Even though we’ve identified the gaps, the whole class will then move on to the next subject, probably a more advanced subject that’s going to build on those gaps. It might be logarithms or negative exponents. And that process continues, and you immediately start to realize how strange this is. I didn’t know 25 per cent of the more foundational thing, and now I’m being pushed to the more advanced thing. And this will continue for months, years, all the way until at some point, I might be in an algebra class or trigonometry class and I hit a wall. And it’s not because algebra is fundamentally difficult or because the student isn’t bright. It’s because I’m seeing an equation and they’re dealing with exponents and that 30 per cent that I didn’t know is showing up. And then I start to disengage.
To appreciate how absurd that is, imagine if we did other things in our life that way. Say, home-building.
So we bring in the contractor and say, “We were told we have two weeks to build a foundation. Do what you can.”
So they do what they can. Maybe it rains. Maybe some of the supplies don’t show up. And two weeks later, the inspector comes, looks around, says, “OK, the concrete is still wet right over there, that part’s not quite up to code … I’ll give it 80 per cent.” You say, “Great! That’s a C. Let’s build the first floor.”
Same thing. We have two weeks, do what you can, the inspector shows up, it’s 75 per cent. Great, that’s a D-plus. The second floor, third floor, and all of a sudden, while you’re building the third floor, the whole structure collapses. And if your reaction is the reaction you typically have in education, or that a lot of folks have, you might say, maybe we had a bad contractor, or maybe we needed better inspection or more frequent inspection. But what was really broken was the process. We were artificially constraining how long we had to something, pretty much ensuring a variable outcome, and we took the trouble of inspecting and identifying those gaps, but then we built right on top of it.
So the idea of mastery learning is to do the exact opposite. Instead of artificially constraining, fixing when and how long you work on something, pretty much ensuring that variable outcome, the A, B, C, D, F — do it the other way around. What’s variable is when and how long a student actually has to work on something, and what’s fixed is that they actually master the material.
And it’s important to realize that not only will this make the student learn their exponents better, but it’ll reinforce the right mindset muscles. It makes them realize that if you got 20 per cent wrong on something, it doesn’t mean that you have a C branded in your DNA somehow. It means that you should just keep working on it. You should have grit; you should have perseverance; you should take agency over your learning.
Now, a lot of sceptics might say, well, hey, this is all great, philosophically, this whole idea of mastery-based learning and its connection to mindset, students taking agency over their learning. It makes a lot of sense, but it seems impractical. To actually do it, every student would be on their own track. It would have to be personalized, you’d have to have private tutors and worksheets for every student. And these aren’t new ideas — there were experiments in other countries, 100 years ago, where they did mastery-based learning and saw great results, but they said it wouldn’t scale because it was logistically difficult. The teacher had to give different worksheets to every student, give on-demand assessments.
But now today, it’s no longer impractical. We have the tools to do it. Do students see an explanation at their own time and pace? There’s an on-demand video for that. Do they need practice? Do they need feedback? There are adaptive exercises readily available for students. We need to make those tools better as the newer generations are having new tools to do other things.
And when that happens, all sorts of neat things happen. One, the students can actually master the concepts, but they’re also building their growth mindset, they’re building grit, perseverance, they’re taking agency over their learning. And all sorts of beautiful things can start to happen in the actual classroom. Instead of it being focused on the lecture, students can interact with each other. They can get deeper mastery over the material. They can go into simulations, Socratic dialogue.
To appreciate what we’re talking about and the tragedy of lost potential here, I’d like to give a little bit of a thought experiment. If we were to go 400 years into the past to Western Europe, which even then, was one of the more literate parts of the planet, you would see that about 15 per cent of the population knew how to read. And I suspect that if you asked someone who did know how to read, say a member of the clergy, “What percentage of the population do you think is even capable of reading?” They might say, “Well, with a great education system, maybe 20 or 30 per cent.” But if you fast forward to today, we know that that prediction would have been wildly pessimistic, that pretty close to 100 per cent of the population is capable of reading. But if I were to ask you a similar question: “What percentage of the population do you think is capable of truly mastering calculus, or understanding organic chemistry, or being able to contribute to cancer research?” A lot of you might say, “Well, with a great education system, maybe 20, 30 per cent.”
But what if that estimate is just based on your own experience in a non-mastery framework, your own experience with yourself or observing your peers, where you’re being pushed at this set pace through classes, accumulating all these gaps? Even when you got that 95 per cent, what was that five per cent you missed? And it keeps accumulating — you get to an advanced class, all of a sudden you hit a wall and say, “I’m not meant to be a cancer researcher; not meant to be a physicist; not meant to be a mathematician.” I suspect that that actually is the case, but if you were allowed to be operating in a mastery framework, if you were allowed to really take agency over your learning, and when you get something wrong, embrace it — the view that failure as a moment of learning — that number, the per cent that could really master calculus or understand organic chemistry, is actually a lot closer to 100 per cent.
And this isn’t even just a “nice to have.” I think it’s a social imperative. We’re exiting what you could call the industrial age and we’re going into this information revolution. And it’s clear that some things are happening. In the industrial age, society was a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid, you needed human labour. In the middle of the pyramid, you had an information processing, a bureaucracy class, and at the top of the pyramid, you had your owners of capital and your entrepreneurs and your creative class. But we know what’s happening already, as we go into this information revolution. The bottom of that pyramid, automation, is going to take over. Even that middle tier, information processing, that’s what computers are good at.
So as a society, we have a question: All this new productivity is happening because of this technology, but who participates in it? Is it just going to be that very top of the pyramid, in which case, what does everyone else do? How do they operate? Or do we do something that’s more aspirational? Do we actually attempt to invert the pyramid, where you have a large creative class, where almost everyone can participate as an entrepreneur, an artist, as a researcher?
And I don’t think that this is utopian. I really think that this is all based on the idea that if we let people tap into their potential by mastering concepts, by being able to exercise agency over their learning, that they can get there. And when you think of it as just a citizen of the world, it’s pretty exciting. I mean, think about the type of equity we can we have, and the rate at which civilisation could even progress.
And so, I’m pretty optimistic about it. I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting time to be alive.
Education is simply the soul of a society as it passed from one generation to another, so let’s make it better before passing it to the generation next.
We need to be open, impatient and hopeful to create the progress the next generation needs.