Embracing Mastery Learning to Avoid Opportunity Gaps

Most “big box” curriculum products (Into Reading, Wonders, Benchmark Literacy, CKLA, etc) employ a spiral approach that introduces and then returns to each skill several times across the year. This benefits students who may not master a skill initially but have greater success with repeated exposure. However, the problem with most of these curricular approaches is that they don’t introduce a skill properly before they spiral it. They don’t give students adequate time to master the skill or even “slightly” master a skill before a new skill is introduced or spiraled. How would you feel if you were introduced to new learning and didn’t even get a chance to understand and practice it before you reviewed it.

Textbooks organized around a spiral design are organized into 9-12 units that spiral over the course of a year and vertically across many years. Skills concepts and strategies are “barely” taught, then they disappear only to return again in a new unit. Because the pacing of each unit is quite short, students rarely experience mastery. This “spiral approach” magnifies the already existing opportunity gaps that plague America’s students who typically get harmed the most. In addition, this fragmented spiral approach is not backed by science, however, deliberate practice and spaced practice are.

Spiral Curriculums to Perpetuate Opportunity Gaps

Although the intent is to treat each skill and concept with increasing depth across the year and in successive grade levels, the functional result is that students acquire a superficial understanding of key concepts and skills. The spiral design hinders student learning by:

  • Fragmented Skill-Concept-Strategy Development
  • Lack of Depth in Critical Areas
  • Inequitable Learning Experiences
  • Limited Time for Mastery
  • Challenge in Assessing Progress
  • Teacher Preparedness
  1. Fragmented Skill-Concept-Strategy Development: A major limitation of the spiral curriculum in ELA is the potential for fragmented skill-concept and strategy development. As students revisit topics from previous years, there is a risk that new skills may not be introduced cohesively and sequentially. This can lead to an incomplete understanding of fundamental concepts, hindering students’ ability to build advanced skills in later grades.
  2. Lack of Depth in Critical Areas: The nature of a spiral curriculum often results in limited time spent on specific topics during each iteration. As a consequence, there may be insufficient depth of coverage in critical areas such as grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills. This shallowness in understanding can impede students’ ability to grasp more complex concepts in higher grades.
  3. Inequitable Learning Experiences: Students in a spiral curriculum may have varying degrees of exposure to specific topics depending on their prior teachers and experiences. This can lead to inequitable learning experiences, as some students may have a solid foundation in certain skills, while others may lack essential knowledge. Such discrepancies can contribute to disparities in academic achievement and exacerbate opportunity gaps that plague American schools. Many of the pervasively low-performing schools across the country are told to teach their “big box” curriculum with fidelity. This clearly is not working and there are scores of schools with data to prove it.
  4. Limited Time for Mastery: The constant revisiting of topics may limit the time available for in-depth exploration and mastery of new skills. ELA, with its emphasis on language nuances, critical analysis, and creative expression, requires time for students to fully comprehend and apply concepts. The spiral approach may inadvertently prioritize breadth over depth.
  5. Challenge in Assessing Progress: With the continuous revisiting of topics, assessing students’ progress becomes a challenging task. Traditional methods of assessment, such as standardized tests, may not accurately reflect a student’s proficiency in a particular area, as they may have encountered the content multiple times without necessarily mastering it.
  6. Teacher Preparedness: Implementing a spiral curriculum requires educators to be well-versed in the intricate web of interconnected ELA skills across grade levels. Teachers must be adept at identifying gaps in students’ knowledge and adjusting their instructional methods accordingly. This places a substantial demand on teacher preparedness and ongoing professional development.

Transforming Spiral Curriculum to a Mastery Approach

For many students the spiral can feel more like a whirlpool, leaving students struggling to grasp foundational concepts before moving on to the next level. That’s where a mastery approach comes in. A mastery approach to learning is superior to other methods because it prioritizes depth of understanding over superficial coverage, ensuring that students truly grasp concepts before spaced practice and the spiral kicks in. By allowing students to progress at their own pace and providing ample opportunities for practice and reinforcement, the mastery approach fosters a deeper level of engagement and retention.

The fusion of a mastery approach to learning with culturally responsive approaches represents a powerful paradigm shift that students, families and educators need.

This personalized learning experience not only promotes academic success but also strengthens student efficacy and a lifelong love of learning. Ultimately, by focusing on mastery, educators empower students to develop the critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities needed to succeed in an ever-changing world. So, how can educators transform their spiral curriculum into a mastery-based model? Let’s explore these nine key steps:

  1. Strengthen Collective Efficacy: Ensure that Impact Teams-PLCs have the structures, processes, and relational trust to understand their impact. Collective efficacy is more than teachers working together; efficacy is strengthened when teachers know their impact on student learning. Each team should launch the year by creating ambitious but realistic SMART goals to ensure that each student makes at least one year of growth in one year’s time.
  2. Assess Current Understanding: Before diving into any changes, it’s crucial to assess where students currently stand in their understanding of the standards. Through diagnostic assessment and universal screeners Identify any gaps or misconceptions that may exist, as these will serve as the foundation for future learning. Many students have not mastered the prerequisites for grade-level standards-based work. Each school should prioritize standards vertically based on at least three years of performance data.
  3. Prioritize Standards: Priority standards represent the assured student competencies that each teacher needs to help every student learn, and demonstrate proficiency in, by the end of the current grade or course. The clarity and prioritization of standards lends itself to higher-quality assessments that support higher-quality feedback. It is far easier for teachers to go in-depth when they have fewer priority standards. Rather than broad coverage of material, teachers can focus on deepening students’ understanding of essential content, strategies, and skills.
  4. Set Clear Unit Learning Targets: Define clear, measurable learning objectives for each unit anchored in your school’s priority standards. These objectives should focus on mastery of key concepts rather than simply covering a certain amount of material. This will provide students with a clear roadmap for their learning journey. These targets should be repeated throughout the year to ensure deliberate practice and spaced practice. It is best that these unit targets are co-constructed with students so they are clear about the expectations.
  5. Focus on Depth, Not Just Breadth: Instead of rushing through concepts-skills-strategies superficially, prioritize depth of understanding. Provide ample opportunities for students to engage with each concept in various contexts, allowing them to make connections and apply their knowledge in meaningful ways. Ensure that there is a balance between surface-deep transfer. All students need rigorous learning. Stay away from surface level drill and kill in isolation that doesn’t connect to transferable goals.
  6. Implement Formative and Summative Assessment: Incorporate frequent formative assessments throughout the learning process to gauge student progress and understanding based on your school’s priority standards. Formative and summative assessments become aligned, purposeful, and essential in identifying those students in need of intervention, remediation, or acceleration. Use this feedback to identify areas where additional support or instruction may be needed, ensuring that no student is left behind. It is best if students are involved in every aspect of the formative assessment process.
  7. Advance Culturally Responsive Practices: Culturally responsive education is crucial for mastery learning because it acknowledges and respects the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of students, parents and educators. By incorporating culturally relevant content, teaching methods, and materials into the curriculum, educators can create a learning environment that is inclusive and meaningful for all learners by enhancing student engagement and motivation; it also facilitates deeper connections between students and the content being taught. Culturally responsive approaches promote a sense of belonging and validation, which are essential for students to feel empowered and confident in their ability to master the material.
  8. Encourage Self-Paced Learning: Embrace a flexible learning environment that allows students to progress at their own pace. Provide resources and support for independent learning, allowing students to revisit concepts as needed until they achieve mastery. Use computer adaptive programs (Zearn (for math), I-Ready, Khan Academy) so students can work at their zone of proximal development.
  9. Provide Differentiated Instruction: Recognize that not all students learn in the same way or at the same pace. Offer differentiated instruction to meet the diverse needs of learners, providing additional support or enrichment opportunities as necessary. Most instruction should be done in small groups since students rarely have the same needs. Students also get more personalized attention and feedback.
  10. Celebrate Mastery Experiences: Celebrate student and teacher mastery experiences, whether it’s mastering a challenging concept or demonstrating growth over time. Recognize and affirm their effort and dedication to learning.

Educators can transform their spiral curriculum into a mastery-based approach that empowers students to truly master material. The fusion of a mastery approach to learning with culturally responsive approaches represents a powerful paradigm shift that students, families and educators need. By prioritizing depth of understanding, personalized pacing, quality feedback and inclusivity, this approach not only equips students with the knowledge and skills needed for academic success but also fosters a sense of belonging, empowerment, and respect for diverse perspectives.

Remember, the journey to mastery may not always be linear, but with dedication and support, absolutely every learner can reach their goals.

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