Teach for Mastery, Not Test Scores

I will admit that I am a bit of a Ted Talk junkie.  Add to that a healthy respect for and frequent use of the Khan Academy learning materials and you’ll understand why I LOVE this particular Ted Talk by Sal Khan:

I recommend watching the Ted Talk – it’s 10 minutes of simple brilliance.  But the general overview is that our current education system that teaches for test scores rather than mastery is causing a multitude of issues that could be overcome with a shift in mindset.  My favourite analogy in the talk is about Math.  Kids learn math concepts from an early age.  They are tested.  Let’s say they get 75%.  That’s a good grade.  They move on.  After a few years of 75% mastery, you can imagine that the 25% gaps in knowledge will create some critical issues.  Without mastery of earlier concepts, at some point, more complex concepts will become extremely difficult, and you will start to hear kids say, “I’m just not good at math.”  You can apply this to many subjects.  If kids were expected to achieve mastery before moving on (by using technology and any number of free and easily accessible resources – thank you, world wide web!), then nearly 100% of the population would be able to read, do calculus, organic chemistry etc.  He goes on to talk also about the benefits of kids learning to seek the information they need, the perseverance, taking agency over their own learning, as critical life skills.

As a homeschooling mom of a kid who has had significant challenges learning to read, and as a result also struggled in math, I fully subscribe to this philosophy of mastery over test scores.  My first introduction to this concept, or at least the first time it was articulated to me in a way that really hit home, was in Sound Connections.  Berrik does not move on to a more complex concept until he has mastered the concept he is currently working on.  And we constantly review earlier concepts as full mastery and ability to quickly access those concepts results in faster and more successful mastery of more complex concepts.

Imagine a kid who has trouble learning to read due to a learning disability that is diagnosed in grade 3.  In a typical classroom, that kid who may now have accommodations or therapies is just starting to learn to read.  What are the chances that anyone at school will go right back to the beginning…the early reading skills that kids are exposed to in preschool, kindergarten and grade 1?  Slim.  There just isn’t time. So unless he’s in a program like Sound Connections, there are going to be some gaps that will make things more challenging down the road.


If only all kids were given the opportunity to master all pre-reading concepts and then early reading concepts and so on and so on!  Watching my kid go from low self confidence and feeling as though he was ‘stupid’ to successfully reading, and learning to decode words, and understanding advanced sound rules (and learning that the rules are all made to be broken in the English language), and learning to spell and write stories has been an incredible journey.  Yes, I homeschool so I have time.  But it’s not the time so much as the access to resources and guidance that have allowed us to efficiently work on mastering concepts. We are playing catch up.  But if these resources and methods were implemented in all kindergartens and grade 1 classes, the foundations would be strong for all kids.

Knowing that mastery is the key has changed the way we approach everything.  This is the true beauty of homeschooling for me.  We do NOT move on until a concept is mastered.  And there is no one telling me I have to.  And not surprisingly, ensuring mastery along the way has resulted in Berrik moving more quickly (especially in math) even as concepts get more complex.  We are still unravelling the puzzle pieces of why Berrik struggles so much with reading and writing – more on vision therapy and other things later.  However, in Math, we started in September doing Grade 1 Math.  We are now working on Grade 2 Math and I expect Berrik to be ready for Grade 3 Math in September when he enters Grade 3.


My two older daughters both do well in school.  Even so, Khan’s example rang true for both of them with regard to Math.  Lack of mastery of some concepts (like memorizing timestables, for example) took 3-4 years before it truly came back to bite them. Suddenly more advanced math concepts that require an ability to recall single digit multiplication became onerous and challenging.  I remember McKenna at one point, maybe in grade 7, realizing that knowing multiplication tables like the back of her hand was a critical skill, so she took the time (on her own time, because that is a grade 3 concept!) to memorize them.  This year in Grade 8, Math is one of her strongest subjects.

It is so very simple, and it is now scalable in the classroom like it never has been in history.  It simply requires a shift in thinking.  An example Khan talks about is hearing from teachers who started assigning the Khan Academy math videos as homework and then doing the practice in class time, instead of the typical method of lecturing and teaching concepts in class and sending kids home to practice on their own with their busy and bewildered parents.  It’s no surprise that this resulted in significantly higher success rates.  And as a parent who has spent many an hour at the table doing math with kids (in spanish no less), I would be over the moon if our homework was to watch the video instead of do the practice.  For the record, many times I had to Google translate the instructions to english and then watch a Khan Academy video to teach myself what my daughters were supposed to be practicing, and then try to help them! PAINFUL.

I think a lot of homeschoolers choose homeschooling for this ability to allow kids to learn at their own pace, and achieve mastery before moving on.  It has been life changing for us this year.

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I am going to throw in a final plug for the Khan Academy.  This website/app is FREE, and you can learn just about anything.  We are using it for math and it’s pretty fantastic.  Sal has created videos about concepts which you can watch as many times as you need to. Then you practice.  A specific number of correct answers identifies mastery.  If you struggle, there are links back to the videos right in the questions, and there are also hints to help you. If you have an account, your data is tracked and you can access and analyze your child’s (or your own) progress.  Even better, the site has been gameified which I know from my L&D world is excellent for motivation and engagement.

My engineer husband who works in the construction industry would never consider building a skyscraper on a foundation that is 80% complete, so why are we building the minds of our children on these faulty, incomplete foundations?

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