MASTERY MATTERS

“At our faculty meeting yesterday we spent too much time talking about how to give final exams so kids who are home don’t cheat.”  So began a Whatsapp message from a friend months ago, her frustration shared by many. COVID-19 caused more than a disruption to education.  However, it may be the catalyst that was needed in order for education to reach a more authentic approach.

“The vast majority of the things we don’t readily forget are all learned from experience and interaction, not from a curriculum or a test,” Tweeted Will Richardson, co-founder of the Big Questions Institute.  Nominated as a Top 5 “Edupreneur to Follow” by Forbes, Richardson’s tweet was aptly given the hashtag #justsayin.

The game has changed. We knew this as we broke into the 21st century and as the digitized world hurdled us all forward.  Long gone were the days of “sit and get” and text books.  Yet still “the institution” seemingly maintained some of its grip.  Control handed down by tighter or even more robust curriculums.  And of course the tests.  

The tests. The tests. The tests.

However, need we be reminded that the game has changed?

With greater clarity we are able to see eyes to see the broken systems but moreover what ultimately matters most.  The “end-all be-all” high stakes hallowed tests have fallen by the wayside.  According to Fairtest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “More than two-thirds of 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which maintains a free, online master list, reports that more than 1,570 schools are now test-optional.”

The Phoenix Flaps Her Wings

An outdated education system akin to crumbling infrastructure or even political shambles, is in transition.  A re-birth of sorts.  One of purpose, authenticity, personalization, and empowerment.  Matt Miller, author and educator of “Ditch That Textbook” sums it up best by positing whether students rent or own their education.  The renters come to class out of compliance.  Whereas the owners are dedicated to caretaking for their own education.  And this makes sense because the global job market no longer is about clocking in and out.  Rather, it expects us to problem solve and proactively and passionately produce.

Getting students excited to have the keys to the car, their car ultimately, does however take educators to trust. “I struggled early on to accept that you couldn’t just convert your class to digital without making changes. I’ve only recently really started to embrace allowing students to own their own experiences,” reflected Jake Trinca in a recent post in response to Dr. John Spencer’s, “7 Big Ideas As You Shift Toward Online Teaching.”  

Letting Students Own Their Own Experiences

Talk about liberation, step back and allow students the space to discuss, grapple, and wonder.  Then, listen and remain flexible to the subtle and sometimes overt direction learning may meander, reminding yourself what this all is for.  Further, who this all is for?  

In “What School Could Be,” author Ted Dintersmith appeals for schools to do just this, by “prioritizing critical thinking, the scientific method, and the essentials of civil society — not high-stakes fact-based multiple choice exams.”  Dintersmith makes the bold claim that, “failure to do so imperils our democracy.”

And wouldn’t this approach in itself be more democratic?  Sitting eight hours a day, being talked at, and told what to do, not only is contrary to democracy and dehumanizing, but also counterproductive to any end goals we have related to student preparedness or empowerment.

A More Authentic Approach Moving Forward 

At the heart of this new, or in actuality old approach, is authenticity.  Proof in the power of apprenticeship is but one example.  A clearer but also brighter vision of the near future is one where education is focused on core competencies and their mastery.  What can students do?  Not on one test but as demonstrated with evidence through their school career. 

The Mastery Transcript Consortium® (MTC) officially launched in 2017 with a purpose of introducing a digital high school transcript. The intent to provide a venue for students to showcase their “unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories fostered, understood, and celebrated.”  Ultimately, this is where we are.  The train HAS arrived.

This approach is not only possible but necessary because inherent in the design is authenticity but also accountability.  Google and Apple are but two of fifteen companies boasting how they hire individuals without a university degree.  Credentials and moreover “pedigree” are not necessarily the “golden ticket” that they maybe once were. This is because employers want to know and be able to see what an individual can do.  Increasingly, it is about evidence.  

“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people,” said Google’s former SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock. 

Graduates with a mastery transcript not only have gone to school but also are able to demonstrate competence.  Much more telling than a fancy resume or high test score.  

Tony Wagner, a globally recognized expert in education, ironically has the initials M.A.T. and Ed.D.  attached to his name.  Both degrees are awarded through the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.  Yet, for more than a decade Wagner has exhorted how outdated the standardized framework for high school is.  Carnegie Units are essentially what students have to earn if they are to graduate and they merely are measures of how much time a student sits in class.  Doing time? Similar to prison. The uncanny resemblance even shows up architecturally.  You can test your luck in determining whether a building is a school or prison on a fun website even.  

Wagner shares how a mastery transcript goes beyond the knowledge and skills mastered.  “It will also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s ‘fit.’”  Again, it’s all about authenticity.

Over the past few years The Mastery Transcript Consortium® (MTC) has developed into a network of 369 schools, a blend of public and private schools in the United States but across the globe. “That 99 percent of the high school transcripts follow an identical format is a vestige of an outdated industrial age,” asserts Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School.  

For now, mastery transcripts may be the exception, yet we can await the day when it is the norm.  

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