What the Masters Can Teach Us About Mastery Learning

It’s the same game. The same course. The same clubs. The same ball.

Yet, its so difficult and challenging every time. Past winners fail to make the cut. Rookies play like they’ve got nothing to lose. And as we watch, we understand that it’s as psychologically and mentally tough as it is physically.

So, what does this have to do with mastery learning? Well, everything.

Mastery-Based Learning (MBL) is a simple concept: Students progress through a course by successfully showing that they “understand” and have “mastered” a certain task, concept, or problem.

Students who understand concepts faster can move ahead, and those that are struggling can have extra time to work through the concept and have repeat opportunities to demonstrate understanding.

Golf As Mastery Learning

Similar to golf, this is extremely challenging. If a professional golfer at the Masters is having a horrible hole…they can’t skip it. They have to continue taking shots, and making putts, until they get it in the hole. While it might have been easier to “skip to the next one” — progress has to come after successful completion.

However, what is interesting about golf is that every single shot is leading to completion of a hole. And every hole is leading to the completion of a round. And every round is leading to the completion of a tournament.

In essence, every shot has a smaller purpose…and much larger purpose.

While the golfers are competing against each other, they are really proving their abilities to themselves.

If you were just watching the Masters you saw Bubba Watson win his second Green jacket in three years. Last year he finished 50th. 1st in 2012, 50th in 2013, and 1st again in 2014.

If Bubba were a student how would we label him? Success? Failure? Inconsistent? Not working up to his potential in 2013?

Giving Students the Chance(s) They Deserve

By now, you may have picked up on the connection (I hope so), but I want to make it really hit home. The Knewton blog did a great job of listing the key features of mastery-based learning:

1. Curriculum design hinges on assessments.

2. Assessments may take any form as long as they determine proficiency.

3. Graduation to the next grade/level/topic is contingent upon successful completion of prerequisite assessment.

4. Curriculum is committed to the success of all students; students are not “allowed” to give up.

At the Masters, the golf course and holes also have key features:

1. Course design hinges on the holes (and placement of those holes).

2. A specific hole may take any form as long as it measures proficiency (which is why we have Par 3 and Par 5’s).

3. Progression to the next hole is contingent upon successful completion of prior hole.

4. Course is designed to challenge and allow for successful completion of all players. They are not allowed to give up.

So, why do we not “judge” a golfer that performs poorly on a course as a failure…but instead, give them another shot at mastery? Phil Mickelson didn’t perform well this year at the Masters. But we still call him a champion, give him another shot next year, and assume he’ll do better at the next tournament.

A student named Phil might fail a test, never get a chance to retake it, and then be penalized for that test at the end of the marking period (or school year) even though they demonstrated mastery on the next test.

If you ask me, we should be giving students more chances for mastery than we give professional athletes.

Making the Switch to Mastery Learning

Michael Horn wrote an interesting article about “the necessity for digital, mastery-based learning” in our schools now. In the piece he talks about our misconceptions about student success:

We often conclude that the top students succeed because they are motivated, and the rest languish in the middle or the bottom of the pack because they aren’t. The “jobs-to-be-done perspective” leads us to a different conclusion. All students are likely equally motivated to feel successful and make progress. For some, school is a viable candidate to hire for this job. This group likely includes those whose parents provide a clear link between academic achievement and career success, for example.

The students who do not hire school to feel successful are not unmotivated. They just don’t or can’t feel successful at school— often it makes them feel like failures. School does not motivate intrinsically. For these students, schools just can’t compete against other vehicles that they can hire for feeling success.

Everyone wants to be successful. And we tend to continue working harder at those things that bring us success. For instance, I’m not a very good golfer…so I don’t spend a lot of time playing golf. I’ve played basketball my whole life, and found success playing basketball, so I’ll usually choose basketball over golf when I have free time.

I have a built in “winning streak” when I play basketball. No…I don’t mean I win every time I play the game (definitely not true), but instead I’ve had moments of success and confidence builders while playing.

Chris Wejr wrote a great post about getting students on winning streaks:

Get them on a winning streak (Tom Schimmer). Provide enough teaching, guidance, and practice so that kids can achieve small victories.  Many of our kids have lost in school for a number of years and therefore, have no confidence and become disengaged.  By “over preparing them” (Schimmer) and creating authentic victories based on personal goals, we can increase confidence.

I might play golf more…if I had a guided opportunity for success. Maybe I could finally win against my wife in mini-golf, learn to drive the ball straight at the driving range, have a decent round in chip-and-putt…and then hit an actual course with confidence.

Instead, we often (myself included) treat assessments as a one-time opportunity. Shame on me for doing that to former students. If the point of teaching is to help students reach understanding of a concept…why would we say they are only allowed to demonstrate it one time?!

That’s like me telling Phil Mickelson he’s only got one shot at the Masters. Or telling Bubba Watson his round at the Masters this year is going to be penalized based on how he finished last year. Silly, right?

Yet, all the blame in this situation cannot (and should not) be put on the teachers. Schools have to make some changes in order for mastery learning to take place. There is no way you can have a curriculum that schedules every single minute of every lesson and expect teachers to have time to give extra-help and second/third/fourth chances on assessments. No…the responsibility runs all the way from the government down to the individual teacher (and every stakeholder in between).

But right now you can do “one specific thing”: Get your students on a winning streak. Get your staff on a winning streak. Build their confidence and hold them to a standard they have to reach until they all can move on. It might mean changing the way you do things…but that’s what it’s all about. Take it hole-by-hole and you’ll always be making progress!

Photo Credit: stevendepolo via Compfight cc

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  • Karyl Morin says:

    Dear A.J. Juliani,
    The parallels you have drawn are fun to bring this idea to life. I am always in tears when I watch someone win the masters and greet their loved ones. My 11 year old daughter was commenting on how it’s too bad that the others didn’t do so well — I was quick to highlight that every single player at the Masters is remarkably good. We had the same conversation about March Madness – she stated that it was too bad that MSU had such a rough year. Another chance to remind her that just because only 1 team wins the tournament does mean the others aren’t still remarkably good at basketball.

    I so appreciate your perspective and challenge for teachers to take the long view of students – to see them as champions, even at lower performing moments as they pursue the practice of so many varied skills and competencies.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts via blog. I threatened to start a blog, and I did make one post – but I think it is time to use that as a vehicle for my thinking and for gaining insight and critique from others.

    Karyl Morin
    West Michigan

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks Karyl! Please start a blog and let us know what your URL is – judging from this comment you will have a lot of great perspective to share with others!

  • carolyn says:

    Your writing makes a great case for educational change. However, the players in the Masters are (already) masters. They have “achieved” and they understand the process. Classrooms are full of novices. A better analogy could be made with you personal golf skills. You switched to basketball because the road to golf mastery is longer than your interest. Unfortunately, in most schools students can’t choose to study easier topics and forego the challenging ones. All areas must be covered, and giving extra chances is a nice idea until you have given so many extra chance that you have no time left for moving forward.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the comment Carolyn. I guess my point with the Master’s is…even though you may consider these golfers “Masters” they are still growing and failing along the way. Sometimes they succeed and many times they fail. However, we don’t judge them on their failures, but on how they can comeback to get another chance for success.

      My story of golf is that I was taking the easy way out…but usually because the only chance I had to play was at an actual course. I’m starting to work on the smaller aspects before I take the “big assessment” of playing the course again. I love the perspective, keep sharing!

  • Lisa Stern says:

    great points! Encouragement,
    Space and time to repeat it until they get it .
    i have worked in Africa…mostly Uganda for 16 years. Only one in three of the children here are getting it so the majority of children are leaving school without the skills they need We have been experimenting with off line repositories with the Khan Academy so they can repeat the lessons as much as they want with a group of children together in front of computers. Taking ownership of their own learning is only possible if they can repeat the lessons on their own time and here in Africa only low power technology that is low cost is going to make that possible.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for the comment. I’d be interested to hear more of your work with computers in Africa. My dad runs an organization in Africa and just built their first school. I’m looking to send some computers over there this summer, but not sure how they are going to be used. Any help would be great!

      • Lisa Stern says:

        We have set up 400 schools here using second hand computers installed with interactive learning off inline. Check out World Possible for some of the off line content we are using. Internet here still way to expensive schools to afford and down loading videos out of the question. What country in Africa is your father working in?

  • Andrew Pass says:

    I thought that this post was very well written and I love the comparison between The Masters and mastery learning. But, I have a question that I consider somewhat sad: Would society really be happy if every student had the chance to succeed and at the end of the year all students could be declared masters? What then happens to the hierarchy within society? I’m not saying that this is good at all. I”m just asking a question that your post made me think about.

    Thanks for sharing!!


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