Using mastery-based learning to overcome Satan

For educators working in digital learning, a common concept is that schools and states should embrace educational approaches in which time is the variable, and learning is the constant. This concept is almost a mantra within online learning circles, having been a key tenet of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), and particularly FLVS founder Julie Young, and many other early innovators in online learning. This concept contrasts online learning with the typical school in which students are moved along to the next grade based on the changing of the calendar, (almost) regardless of how much they have learned But as Competency Works and others have discussed, making learning the constant and time the variable can be implemented without using digital learning. In fact, early efforts by the Chugach School District in Alaska, and the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, were not heavily based on technology. Mastery-based learning, personalized learning, and digital learning can be represented by circles that overlap partially, but not entirely.

How far back does the concept of mastery-based learning go? According to Wade Whitehead, in a conversation that we had after his keynote presentation at the Growing Together Summit in Colorado, in the 1600s the first public schools in what would become the United States were based on mastery.

What was being mastered? Reading. Why? Because reading was necessary to ensure that people could read the Bible, thereby protecting them from the delusions that Satan would plant into their heads. Students would stay in school until they had mastered reading and writing; then they could return to working the fields. “All children, and servants as well, should be able to demonstrate competency in reading and writing as outlined by the governing officials,” explains one summary of what has been called the “Old Deluder Satan Act.”

With some minor editing, that quote could apply to the Common Core or other 21st century standards. And according to the source linked above, the reason for a law requiring that students master reading and writing was as much so they could understand the laws of the Commonwealth as to read the Bible. Still, the concept is hundreds of years old—and at least partly based on helping students resist evil.

Competency-based learning is innovative compared to the state of education for the past century or so. But in many ways it is simply a return to a much earlier time, only now it is often facilitated by digital learning.