Reminder: Mastery and Performance are NOT the Same Thing [Slide]

Over the course of the past week, I’ve been wrestling with one simple question:  Are the grading practices in our schools too far gone to be fixed?

My thinking started when Dean Shareski challenged me to make self-assessment a larger part of the work that I do in my classroom.  It was pushed further by a candid confession from one of my students that her determination to “do well” distracts her from actually learning anything.

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

The intellectual challenge continued for me when I stumbled across this remarkable Cale Birk piece which argues that schools need to be places where students are inspired to try instead of where students spend their time cowering in fear of failure.

Cale writes:

Call me Polyanna, but I want students to try the things they would not normally try.  To do things that they would normally not think that they could do.

And the only way to get them to do those things is to build the belief that they CAN do it, to help them scaffold the task so they have the appropriate level of challenge, and to build their resiliency skills so when they are confronted with the inevitable challenges that will come they choose to persevere.

In short, I want them to approach their courses at school as though they cannot fail as opposed to thinking they might fail and that failure is good for them.

What Cale is hinting at is that we need to create buildings that take a mastery — instead of performance — orientation to learning outcomes, an idea that the Mindshift blog tackled this week.

The difference between mastery and performance orientiations to learning, according to Mindshift, is the difference between the kind of learning that kids do in summer camps and the kind of learning that they do in today’s high-stakes classrooms.

In summer camps, students learn for the sake of learning.  Every day is a new adventure — an opportunity to explore and to think and to experiment and to tinker without ever having to worry about whether or not YOUR tinkering is the RIGHT tinkering.


In too many of today’s high-stakes classrooms, students learn because they are afraid of the consequences of not making an A.  They’ve been told for too long by too many important people in their lives that grades —  on report cards, on standardized tests, on college entrance exams — matter more than exploring and experimenting.



The consequences of creating learning environments that emphasize performance over mastery couldn’t be more clear according to this research report cited in the Mindshift bit.  Performance-driven cultures lead to higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of determination in the face of difficult circumstances.

In other words, when the going gets tough in performance-driven environments, students stop moving forward because they know that if they get “the wrong answer” (read: the answer the teacher is expecting), their average is screwed.

Better to ask a thousand questions than to take an intellectual risk. Risks aren’t worth taking when the stakes are so stinking high.


On the other hand, learning environments that emphasize mastery INSTEAD of performance encourage kids to be intellectually innovative.  Ideas matter more than scores — and when ideas matter more than scores, engagement levels and motivation rise.


In the words of Rick Stiggins, hitting targets isn’t half as important as being willing to continue shooting in mastery-driven learning environments.

If this is all true — and it certainly resonates with everything that I know about teaching and learning after 18 years in the classroom and after 3 years of being a dad — then WHY are we still pushing for #edpolicies and #edpractices that put so much emphasis on performance over mastery?

And more importantly, what steps do we need to start taking — both as a profession and as communities who care about getting education right — to make mastery a more important part of the work that we do with our students?

Good questions, huh?

Wish I had some meaningful answers.


Related Radical Reads:

What if Schools Created a Culture of Do INSTEAD of a Culture of Know?

Just Another Race to Know-Where?

Teaching Innovation with the Curiosity Box




Original Image CreditAiming for the Gold by Joe Hagan

Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on May 19, 2012

6 thoughts on “Reminder: Mastery and Performance are NOT the Same Thing [Slide]

  1. Todney Harris

    Absolutely Brilliant! Please follow my blog
    Please read my post:
    Thus far, I have documented my personal feelings regarding the No Child Left Behind legislation. As of the last week in September of 2011, the act will most certainly be revised during Obama’s administration. Thus far, Arne Duncan the secretary of the Department of Education has revealed that some of the provisions in the act will be either be waived or substantially changed. The major provision that all children be proficient in math and reading by 2014 will most definitely be scrapped from the legislation. In return for the waiver, the Obama administration is expected to attach teacher performance to students test scores and create the expectation that charter school are to be expanded within each state. Obama and Arne Duncan have also stated publicly that each state would be given more flexibility regarding testing controls and standards.
    I agree with the fact that states should have more control. I states previously that I think it is unconstitutional for the federal government to intervene in the affairs of education. However, I still have a major issue with linking teacher evaluations and performance based on student test scores and student data. As an educator, I have a fundamental disagreement with attaching teacher performance to student data and testing scores. I can attest for the record that teachers try their best each and every day. Educators have to work with the students that they are given. It is our hope that all students come to school every day willing to work hard and to learn. However, there are just too many variables that educators cannot control that undermine the process. I think that some common sense has to be applied to in this situation.
    The overall consensus is that that requiring all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014 has resulted in unnecessary pressure being put upon educators and administration. The pressure has resulted in cheating scandals that occurred in the states of Georgia and Connecticut.
    A widespread scandal within the educational community ensued when the Governor’s office of student achievement investigated the abnormal number of erasures on student answer sheets. As a result of this investigation, principals, teachers and other department officials were implicated in the scandal. As a result these public officials and educational staff were either forced to resign or were fired if they weren’t willing to resign officially.
    Another cheating scandal erupted in Waterbury Connecticut at Hopeville School. An administrator and a teacher were implicated in the tampering of elementary test scores. The Connecticut Mastery tests were subject to tampering in an effort to raise test scores as well. A state investigation found irregularities in the school’s scores on the State Mastery Tests, there were major improvements, and in some cases, scoring top in Connecticut.
    If student data and test scores are still going to be the focus of the No Child Left Behind revision, then more scandals could be a very real possibility in the future. I think it is folly to continue to place undue pressure on teachers and administration. This is the very core essence of the bill that needs revision! I just cannot comprehend why this key issue hasn’t been understood by Mr. Duncan or President Obama.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    I think one way to approach mastery learning is to give students
    multiple opportunities to show mastery of content. If students know that
    they can re-attempt anything that they fail then the pressure of
    performance is greatly reduced. It also puts responsibility back on the
    student to manage their time and learning
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Im with you here, Mike. I think the only hitch in allowing kids to rework is the management nightmare that it can create for teachers. I know that on my team, we have a pretty liberal rework policy. Kids wait until the last minute to rework things, though — and some dont bother to try the first time — or the second time or the third time — because they know that reworks are an option.
    That leaves me shuffling to keep grades current and shuffling to try to create multiple versions of assignments for students so that reworks cover the same content in a different way.
    I guess a solution for that would be to have kids design their own reworks. Like assessment, if Im working harder than kids on their reworks, theres something wrong.
    Maybe Ill come up with a menu of standard rework choices that kids can choose from that give a general sense of what can be done and kids can adapt it to the content that were currently studying.
    Still trying to figure this one out.
    Thanks for pushing my thinking…

  3. Mike Kaechele

    I think one way to approach mastery learning is to give students multiple opportunities to show mastery of content. If students know that they can re-attempt anything that they fail then the pressure of performance is greatly reduced. It also puts responsibility back on the student to manage their time and learning.

  4. ginnyp

    Overheard at a teacher gathering last week: “I want my classroom to be a place where students want to be.” It certainly hasn’t been that lately, with the last 2 weeks spent “practicing” how to perform well on standardized tests. The only growth that is important, evidently, is growth from last year’s test score to this year’s. Oh that we could, indeed, have the Ferriter Charter School.

  5. John T. Spencer

    I’ve been using “mastery” as the goal that I teach my students. Lately, I’ve been rethinking this idea. If mastery is never truly possible, why not just call it “growth” instead?

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