What Is Mastery?



:possession or display of great skill or technique

The end of the 2013-14 school year and the start of the 2014-15 school year started off with discussions of the same difficult subject, mastery. The last institute day of school introduced the conversation to our building staff. What is mastery? What does it look like in the classroom? How do we know when a student has gained mastery? The first institute day of the new school year pushed those questions even harder. What are we willing to do to ensure each student achieves mastery? What will we do when a student is not mastering a subject? Do we believe each student can obtain mastery? Is mastery even the right word to use?

While it was only the fifth day of school when our institute took place, our staff was ready to dive head first into the discussion and debate.

For my department it was the word mastery itself that sparked the most debate. Was mastery really a word we should be using to describe what high school students are capable of achieving? To many of the educators in the room mastery implied being the top of the top, an elite leader in the field. Wouldn’t proficiency be a more accurate word? For those staff members, the discussion couldn’t progress past that word, mastery. As we tried to move forward, the conversation shifted to theory and application, but disagreement about the word remained.

Everyone agreed, we need to set standards for our students and make them aware of what is expected of them. When a student fails to meet those standards the first time, that doesn’t make them a failure, it simply means they didn’t learn on our timeline. If our goal is to have a student learn a concept we must be willing to let them show evidence of that learning, even after ‘time’ has passed.

But how do we show evidence of learning? A student who doesn’t meet standards the first time we test may need the opportunity to re-test. We may need to create alternate assessment forms and allow students to re-test at a later date. The test may not need to be in the same form, a student could verbally explain the concept, complete a project, or simply re-do the section of an exam they failed. The goal is to allow students to show their understanding. This may mean additional work for us as educators.

Retakes, re-dos, alternate exams, they don’t happen on their own. They all require additional time but they also provide additional reward for you and the student. A student is given the opportunity to learn and hears the message ‘this is important, so important I am willing to work with you until you get it right.’ What they’re also hearing is ‘you’re important, you’re capable, I want you to succeed.’ As a teacher, mastery allows you to see growth in your students. It gives you the satisfaction of seeing your hard work come to fruition. Not just in the self-motivated, honors students, but in all students. The extra work you put in to see a student achieve is more rewarding than the time you put in to make it happen.

For a better glimpse of what mastery can look like, take a look at this video our staff put together. Veteran and novice teachers from a wide variety of departments provide their insight to what mastery is and what it could look like within the classroom.



Hearing from these teachers, you can tell mastery is a powerful teaching concept. It’s the power to achieve, inspire and even change a life. It’s the concepts that are important, not the word we use. This year I encouraged you to consider what mastery looks like in your classroom and if you’re hesitant don’t let the word hang you up. You don’t need to call it mastery to implement to concepts. The word is not the thing. When you keep your classroom about the concept, application and success of ‘mastery’ I’m willing to bet you’ll see students become both proficient and masters.


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