Assessment: What’s Worth Learning?

Note:  This piece was originally published on the Mastery Transcript Consortium’s site.

Thank you for joining me for the second instalment in this series. We’ll begin to dig into the various shifts that I see as essential to transform a school or district into a mastery-based learning environment. In this piece, I wanted to explore some key points in moving from a Graduate Profile to a Learning Model, as per MTC’s Journey Towards Mastery Learning.

Domains of mastery is a term sometimes used to describe a taxonomy or structure for organizing different grain sizes of essential learning goals. It is not a novel feature and we regularly utilize similar hierarchies to organize academic standards into subject areas, strands, standards, benchmarks, or something similar. In a mastery-based environment, all learning goals should be grouped under a consistent structure to allow us to organize the landscape and create a map to navigate our goals. This is especially true of our transdisciplinary goals.

The framework you devise and populate with essential learning goals is a core element to operationalizing a move to mastery. It is also a key element of transformation, especially when we elevate new learning goals as part of this structure. I believe that transformation in education has been difficult because we largely leave the goals of learning untouched. Why change our assessment practices, for example, if we are still assessing the same things and my past practice “did well enough?” Schools have thick skins and efforts to push change in from the outside are often deflected by this skin. However, if we change our goals at the center of our practice, we can effectively drive change backwards through all systems within a learning environment.


What Students Must Learn

There are simply too many things that we could ask our students to learn; we need to focus on what we must. Academic standards can sometimes bury us and our students in huge lists of everything that is possible to teach about a discipline. It can become, as the old saying goes, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The same danger exists with “non-academic” (a dated moniker) elements of mastery (I call them desired “impacts,” but you might call them transdisciplinary, 21st century, or something similar) that we wish our students to demonstrate if we are not informed, targeted and selective.

First the concept of focusing on lifeworthy learning (a term popularized by David Perkins) is largely applied to the glut of content that teachers and students must wade through. Is all of this stuff really worth learning? Is it useful in the long run and does it make a difference in the lives of our students? The Impacts we select as part of our mastery domains should be similarly examined.

I have seen schools deal with the scope of learning possibilities by including all or most of a long list of possible impacts and transdisciplinary goals. It quickly becomes a word salad that no amount of organizing can make usable. The entire community spends more time wrestling with huge lists of vaguely defined words than they would be focusing on a small number of clear, distinct, future-focused, achievable and demonstrable goals.


Five Points

In short, here are a few things to keep in mind when constructing your mastery domains:

Future Oriented: In order to select mastery elements and domains, we should first deal with the lifeworthy question. To do so, I often use futures visioning processes to lead the community in exploring drivers of change and the types of realities that may emerge in our students’ futures. We can identify major probable trends via this process (for example: Our students are likely to have multiple careers, many of which don’t exist today, and will need to reinvent and upskill themselves regularly and strategically). From this, we can state that our response must be to equip students with the skills to become self-directed learners. This is an obvious example, but it serves as a good illustration.
Articulated: It is not enough to say that we must help our students to become self-directed learners. What does that mean? What does that look like? What might serve as evidence of mastery in these different areas and how might we judge quality evidence from lesser evidence? Many schools will take this desired impact of developing self-directed learners (perhaps as a mastery domain itself) and break it into components or credits — what I call performance areas, such as growth mindset, productive reflection, goal setting and achievement, efficacy, initiative, and similar, more concise learning goals. From there, we would usually create continua — what I call performance indicators (not standards) — articulating what a student should do to demonstrate mastery at different developmental stages. We will also need consistent and appropriate ways to provide valuable feedback on the quality of student demonstrations and artifacts, such as scales, rubrics, and the like (more on this in an upcoming post).
Tested: Before adopting a set of mastery domains and their articulated components, they need to be prototyped. Students, teachers and parents need to engage with the continua in order to evaluate their suitability. Are they demonstrable? Are they important? Are the performance areas and indicators accurate and helpful? Are they achievable and sustainable? Can we interpret evidence as to its quality? It is better to prototype before adoption than to find out that you are stuck with an unwieldy, vague or unsupportable framework.
Supported: Sometimes schools will assume that the transdisciplinary impacts that are part of their mastery domains will simply emerge from the learning environment. In a way, they are half right. Certainly a learning environment and experiences tailored to these learning goals will help them to be elevated as necessary components of success. However, we also need to provide students with tangible and powerful tools and strategies with which to learn and master these goals. We wouldn’t assume that students could learn complex concepts in science, for example, without providing them, explicitly, with the tools and strategies needed to attain and demonstrate mastery. The same can be said about the transdisciplinary goals within our mastery domains. We can’t expect students to become self-directed learners simply by experiencing greater autonomy; they also need to learn how to become self-directed using tools and strategies to support this goal. I advocate for identified tools and strategies to accompany the continua mentioned above so that we can intentionally and explicitly support the development of these lifeworthy skills and dispositions. More on this in an upcoming instalment, as well.
Organize for Learning: Use mastery domains as an opportunity to break out of subject area and course silos. For example, a domain such as “Logical Skills and Processes” could contain credits or performance areas of mathematical practices, scientific investigation, critical thinking, ethical decision-making, design thinking, philosophy . . . in other words, use it as an opportunity to mix it up. Embed appropriate standards in the more “academic” performance areas and performance indicators from your continua into the transdisciplinary/impact goals.

I hope these five points have been thought-provoking and help with your processes, either as you develop your domains or reflect on an existing structure. Time spent here will provide a solid foundation for all efforts to come.