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How COVID-19 could bring much-needed flexibility and creativity to our education system. There's no reason more public schools can't adopt mastery learning
By: | November 2, 2020
Photo by Jessicah Hast via Unsplash.

Siri Fiske is founder and head of Mysa School in Washington D.C.

It turns out virtual schooling isn’t as easy as ABC.

The Washington Post has reported that children are literally in tears from too much screen time. Parents aren’t quite sure what role they play in virtual classrooms.  I’ve seen well-intentioned ones interrupt class with ill-timed questions and advice.

As we tell our kids, practice makes perfect. Teachers, parents, and students will all get better at remote learning with time. But the educational status quo isn’t helping.

Even before the pandemic, American schools subscribed to a 1920s factory-style model of education. Kids learn one subject at a time in classrooms where everyone’s the same age. This rigid model was inappropriate long before we’d even heard of COVID-19. Now, it’s completely infeasible. The only way to virtually engage and educate students is to break out of this traditional classroom mold.

How can schools go about doing so?

For one, they can start grouping children based on the skills they’ve mastered, rather than their ages or grade levels. Around 40 percent of middle- and high-school students don’t feel engaged at school, according to a survey of 230,000 students across 36 states conducted between 2012 and 2017.  As many as four in ten elementary and middle schoolers perform above grade level in reading, according to a Johns Hopkins study.

This rigid model was inappropriate long before we even knew what COVID-19 was — but now, it’s infeasible.

Putting unchallenged, disengaged students in front of screens for hours will have devastating effects on learning. Instead, schools should take advantage of Zoom’s breakout sessions to group students by interest and skill level.

For example, a teacher could virtually split sports fanatics into a session tasked with solving hockey-related math problems. Another session of art-inclined students could study the geometry within a famous painting.

A virtual literature class could have some students answer basic questions about the text, while more advanced students debate more analytical questions. In a “mastery model” like this, students move on to more challenging content as soon as they’ve grasped certain skills, regardless of age or grade level.


Related: Slow responses in shift to remote learning hurting students


We’re using this competency-based learning at Mysa School, the micro school I founded and lead. There’s no reason more public schools can’t adopt mastery learning, especially now that teachers can rearrange virtual classrooms with the click of a button.

Consider Brooklyn’s Middle School 442’s experience with mastery learning. Just two years after shifting to the mastery model, the percentage of students proficient in math jumped from 5 percent to 26 percent.

The pandemic also provides an opportunity to make curricula more flexible and adaptable. If a certain part of the curriculum isn’t conducive to online learning, teachers shouldn’t hesitate to swap it out.

Consider a middle-school biology teacher who had planned to teach lab skills this month. Instead of hands-on experiments, that teacher could focus on lessons in science writing. She could have students edit lab write-ups or draft mock articles for science publications. Then she could offer feedback over something like Moodle, a free web-based platform that lets teachers create custom online courses and store students’ work.


Read: How an equity audit zeroed in on ‘avenues of achievement’


Or take fine art. A segment on pottery is difficult to teach via video. Rather than “half-teach” a clay lesson, teachers could focus on drawing for the time being — and revisit pottery in-person when students return to school.

Under this approach, students would log major gains in at least one area, rather than making marginal progress in multiple subjects.

The coronavirus doesn’t have to wreak havoc on our children’s education. Online learning environments can function just as well as traditional classroom settings, according to researchers from MIT and Harvard University.

This crisis, though devastating, offers us a chance to revamp our outdated education model. Let’s make the most of it.

Siri Fiske is founder and head of Mysa School in Washington D.C.