Last weekend, a parent sent me this TED Talk by Sal Khan of Khan Academy. The talk focuses on the importance of teaching to mastery and offers some really salient metaphors for the discussion. He describes what the process might be like if we built houses the way most schools educate children, where 70% is a passing grade and reason enough to move forward.
He says, “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 do 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.”
Understandably, parents are anxious to see their children learning at “grade level” (a concept I have issues with at face value, but we’ll leave that for another day). But somehow in the pursuit of an absolute product (a certain grade level achievement), what we get instead is an absolute process (learning at a predetermined, fixed pace). Pilot’s decision to teach to mastery comes from a deep conviction that students will not be able to sustain themselves through the complex and nuanced lessons of high school, college, and graduate school if we do not first lay solid foundations across all disciplines in the earlier years of education.
To use Sal Khan’s language, we are eschewing the variable outcome by embracing a variable process. Put to practice, it will take some children one year to learn something that it will take another student two years to learn. In a different discipline or on a different concept, the situation might be quite the opposite. We do our best to monitor true mastery so that we don’t move forward arbitrarily. We do methodical work now to invest in more efficient learning later on.
I encourage all of you to watch the video. It’s short but very much worthwhile. And please keep the reading suggestions and video links coming! I wouldn’t have come across this particular talk had a parent not sent it to me, and I’ve been talking about it with colleagues all week.
I look forward to seeing you all in a few hours at Family Fun Night!