stranded ideas

today i learned about “mastery learning” – basically, a process where students study a concept until they can pass test showing 90% proficiency, then they move onto the next concept. not only that, but it appears to be empirically validated. from wikipedia:

Mastery Learning has been one of the most highly investigated teaching methods over the past 50 years. While it has been the subject of high criticism, it has also been found to have resounding success when implemented correctly.[34] A meta-analysis by Guskey & Pigott (1988)[35] looked at 46 studies that implemented group-based mastery learning classrooms. Results found consistently positive effects for a number of variables including “student achievement, retention of learned material, involvement in learning activities, and student affect”.[35] However, a notable variation was found within student achievement and it was believed this was due mainly to the subject being taught. Courses such as science, probability, and social studies yielded the most consistent positive results, while other subjects were varied.[35]

if this is true, why hasn’t mastery learning been more broadly rolled out?

sometimes i think the world is complex, science is getting more expensive, and each marginal gain for humanity will become more challenging. other times, i stumble across something like mastery learning and feel like the world has plenty of high-impact, sparsely implemented ideas just waiting for someone to execute on them.

why do these good ideas not get immediate adoption?

unfortunately, i don’t have an answer. but in an era where scientific progress seems to be getting more expensive and difficult, it might make a lot of sense to refocus on areas where there might be an easier win. where the barrier to progress is institutional, not scientific.

that said, if anyone has ideas on ways to find more ideas like mastery learning, or if you’re working to implement something along those lines, get in touch. i’d love to chat.

2 responses

  1. This sounds great if you were self-studying at your own pace. I do something similar to this for chess training. I find my weaknesses and drill puzzles to get stronger until I can do it intuitively. However this takes a TON of time and it is not fun. It is the grind. Similar to how an NBA athlete practicing the same crossover 1,000 times or a badminton player practicing backhand drops 1,000 times.

    Even if all the teachers knew about this idea, it would be incredibly challenging to get all 30 students to understand fractions before moving on. In the current school system, it is very much plug and chug, training kids to be obedient workers, which is a whole other topic.

    I wonder how we can use this concept for other things like cooking – you can’t move onto cook the next dish until you’ve mastered how to cook eggs, or something like this. Or this can happen for your career – you can’t learn how to a/b test until you fully understand X design principles.

    It reminds me of a blogger, I believe is Nerd Fitness or Impossible (Joel I believe was his name) created their life like a video game. Where you have to complete certain objectives before “leveling up” which was all created by him. It was nerdy but awesome to see things visually like that. Maybe if we created a checklist or level of some sort… that would give us more motivation to complete it vs. trying to hurry to the next one.

    Which brings me back to patience/process. Every time you practice your crossover, it will be boring, but super effective when you actually go and play. The trick is helping people find a way to enjoy this process.

  2. The question may be: “where to apply it”?

    – Schools primary objective is not necessarily to make an army of super smart people.
    – Most companies seek profit rather than investing in making employees better. At the end of the day there’s a risk that they’ll take their talents somewhere else.
    – Applying it to oneself means just getting better at something, and unless there’s some accountability involved, it may not be sustainable because everyone finds a reason to bend reality.

    It’s true that this concept is new to me, but the question might be, “what problem does it try to solve and for who?” and then from there try to adjust it and implement it.

    With learning, 90% of the struggle might be the actual “why” since we all know how easy anything can be to that one person who actually is interested.

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