Whose Curriculum? Mastery or Personalization

Out of the Box September 19 / September 23, 2019

 – Steven Kolber –

As teachers, we all stand below a broad curriculum umbrella as well as a subject area umbrella, yet how we approach these big concepts is the realm of the ‘enacted curriculum.’ It’s informed by our own personal beliefs, views of our content, context and our broader worldview. 

In this piece, I will explore two different approaches to curriculum and their enactment: mastery and personalized learning. Personalized learning has been criticized as being the ‘edu-babble’ de jour, so it is timely to explore it further and compare and contrast it against Mastery Learning. 

In his presentation at RESCON 2018, Steve Griffiths (@sciencesteveg) described two different views on Mastery Learning: firstly, in the sense of classical artists and secondly in the more commonly held view of achieving a high standard (say 90 or 100 percent) before being able to progress. I will address the first conception of this later in the piece when I illustrate an example from my own practice. But as a short value proposition, mastery recommits and focuses on the curriculum and expects all students prove they have mastered each concept before progressing. 

Getting personal

Personalized learning is an approach that fundamentally changes the curriculum for each student. It lends itself more to passion projects, student interest and self-led exploration; crucially, it is almost always mediated by technology. Personalized learning is something that technology companies have put great stock in because true personalization for all students in commonly sized classrooms is all but impossible for a single human teacher. One key component of personalized learning is the now widely-derided concept of ‘learning styles’, which should bring pause to most informed educators.                                             

The short value proposition is: change the content to excite the learner.

As noted above, the discussion that follows is limiting these two ideas to curriculum. The quality of the curriculum that we work within is something generally beyond the control of most teachers, yet it is these documents that may provoke either of the two approaches to be adopted. If faced with a boring, outdated or out-of-touch curriculum, a teacher may choose the approach of personalization. If working within a curriculum that is modern, dynamic and ever-changing, a teacher may be more willing to take the approach of Mastery Learning. 

In my view, ‘scale-ability’ is a false idol that need not be chased in teaching. There ought to always be ideas that are formed and remain within their context.

It is worth pausing momentarily to consider the concept of ‘scale-ability,’ the idea of taking one idea that has worked in one class, school or region and ‘scaling’ it up for use at a broader level than where it began. This is too often the presumed goal of educational interventions and also educational research, a good idea in one context is rarely allowed to stay as such, and often the expectation is that such an intervention should be ‘scaled up’ and ‘rolled out’ more broadly. The ‘scale-ability’ of personalized learning is high because it is typically a form of digital technology hinged on learning analytics with aims for a wider rollout implicit in its design. Mastery Learning is so closely tied to curriculum documents, the teacher, teacher-student relationships and to a master teacher that it would score very low in regards to ‘scale-ability.’ 

In my view, ‘scale-ability’ is a false idol that need not be chased in teaching. There ought to always be ideas that are formed and remain within their context, and Mastery Learning definitely fits that bill. Mastery Learning is often supported by a flipped learning approach, yet some would suggest that each of these ideas have difficulty being ‘scaled up’ due to their reliance on teacher’s high-level content and technological expertise. This is not to dismiss either of these ideas; it is always important for there to be approaches and pedagogies that may not be achievable for all teachers, just as experienced doctors may practice methods that a rookie doctor may not be able to achieve. Mastery Learning requires a master teacher and is so much richer for that fact. If you put aside the concept of scaling up an intervention, this frees up teachers to pursue ideas and approaches with high skill ceilings to best extend their own practice and the learning of their students. 

It behooves us as a teacher to problematize each new ‘edu-babble buzz word’ in the following way, by asking simply:

    • Does this intervention have human relationships at its core?
    • Does this approach allow me to spend more time engaging with my students?

If, by contrast, an approach that places technology, learning progressions, students’ learning or data at its center the initial instinct ought to be one of refusal and challenge from our profession. 

Mastery Learning

Shifting to mastery, two core tenets underpin the approach: firstly, not all students start at the same place and secondly, all students are expected to end up in the same place. These tenets are crucial because the aim is for all students to complete school with similar shared concepts and it presupposes that the curriculum itself is viable, valuable and meaningful. 

These tenets can be expanded upon from what we know of evidence. Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ notes that “on average, around 50 percent or content presented to students is known before it is presented”. The argument for all students ending up with similar or the same knowledge is one of community expectations, shared communal ideas and beliefs are part of the cultural encoding process of school. 

The common conception of mastery is expressed through the learning areas of maths and science, these learning areas have discrete knowledge components and clear skills and knowledge that can be tested. My area is English (or ‘Language Arts’, if you prefer) and developing students formal and analytic writing, where Steve Griffiths idea of mastery is most important. I am not expecting my students to reach the same level, but I am expecting them to master the content to the level that they are able. In fact, the process of achieving mastery in this context is without quantitative data, it is purely experiential and qualitative and crucially mediated by relationships.

Let me illustrate how this is done for a greater context. Students are completing a unit on ‘Language Analysis’ which asks them to look at a piece of opinion-focussed persuasive writing and note the way that the authors attempt to position the reader to support their ideas. 

This is a type of writing and a series of tasks that students have completed in the majority of their years at high school. The presumption of most teachers is to begin at ‘square one’ each year. Teach the students the techniques that they are looking for, teach their students the structure of the response again (sometimes for the 5th, 6th or 7th time in their high school career). This assumption is called a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate, but pushed to the most extreme, because all teachers are aware of the very ‘un-blank-ness’ of their student’s slates. 

So, in short, my approach is to break the task down into discrete elements, not arrayed in a progression, or given number values, but simply presented as a cohesive artifact. Students display mastery by completing the task for which they are to be assessed on, their written response. They can choose to write whole pieces, which is encouraged or to complete small components of their fuller response aiming to achieve each element in isolation. By progressing in this manner, students are able to generate their own responses and clarify their understanding of the written form in a variety of different ways. 

Lessons from the classroom

My experience of a mastery approach has been transformational, students have been called upon to conference with me, their teacher, far more often than they normally would have. They are also being called upon to exhibit the very skills that we expect of them as burgeoning adults about to be cast into the ‘real world’. In this sense, it is not the content being learned that is the greatest element of Mastery Learning, rather it is many of the incidental factors that are most valuable. 

Hattie and Timperley (2007, 2011) note four forms of feedback provided to students:

    1. Task or product
    2. Processes
    3. Self-regulation
    4. The Self

A recent 2006 study noted that most teachers struggle with providing direct instruction to their students around self-regulation and their conceptions of ‘the self.’ This is a task that a mastery approach to curriculum is most able and apt to support. Students are told not only how close they were to the target, but they are asked to reflect on their own self, the core processes that led them to produce their work. The teacher moves from being a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side,’ and then finally to a coach of the self-as-learner. Not all teachers will be comfortable with these shifts, but for me, I’ve found the process liberating!

In closing, personalizing curriculum too often leaves us with little in common curriculum, whilst a mastery approach allows students to learn and grow as learners whilst engaging deeply with the content. I challenge you to try both!






Steven Kolber
Steven Kolber
I am a Public Secondary School teacher from Melbourne, Australia. I am in my 9th year of teaching in the subject areas of English, History and English as an Additional Language. I am currently a Flipped Learning trainer interested in Assessment, Educational Technology and Game-based Learning. I am a Level 2 Google Educator, Microsoft Innovative Education Expert (2017-2018) and I have been flipping portions of my classes for a number of years. I am passionate about advocating for the needs of teachers in Australia. I regularly visit Cambodia to run workshops on Pedagogy with the organisation ‘Teachers Across Borders Australia’.




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