Concentrating on Mastery for Stronger Education Foundations

American students have consistently received average scores and ranked behind students from other highly developed and industrialized nations. In fact, the US only ranked 38th out of 70 countries in mathematics and 24th in science and reading at the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance on the three subjects and other skills.

The mediocre showing in international tests comes despite the country spending more on education than any other. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that the US spends an average of $16,268 annually for a student’s education from primary to tertiary education. Students from countries like Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, and Germany all ranked higher than US students, in fact.

Calls for Education Reform

Education Reform Local and federal government officials, as well as public school teachers, have been calling for educational reform for years. This 2018, more teachers are running for office in the hopes of securing a position to help them improve the local school systems, implement new educational ideas, and prevent further budget cuts in public education.

Teachers, school districts, and local government officials in different states are all working towards increasing the funding for public schools, raising salaries for teachers, and overhauling standardized tests. Parents and students are also taking a stand against standardized testing and opting out of participating in the tests. Standardized tests, which are used to measure students’ understanding of school subjects and promote educator accountability, have long been criticized for limiting teachers’ curriculum scope and causing extreme stress for students.

Other educational reforms that Americans across the nation are fighting for include grants for low-income and disabled students, increased funding for arts programs, and better career guidance or preparation for both high school and college students.

Taking Heed of Other Countries

The American educational system can learn a few things from the educational systems of other countries.

Finland, which is often lauded for having one of the top educational systems in the world, emphasizes teachers’ training and competence. Those who aim to work as educators in Finland are required to pass stringent preparation programs and graduate with a Master’s degree. Teachers in Finland are trusted, well-respected, and granted greater autonomy in their work.

The Finnish educational system highlights the importance of providing students with a strong foundation within nine years of compulsory education. It also focuses on meeting the students’ basic needs, such as free school meals, psychological counseling, and easy access to health care.

Meanwhile, students in Singapore, the top performing country in the PISAs, undergo assessment tests and given additional help if deemed necessary. Students who earn poorer marks compared to their peers are given additional help and assistance from teachers who specialize in bringing students up to speed. Hong Kong has a similar program as well, but for immigrant children. They undergo a six-month program to help them catch up with the lessons before going to the regular schools.

Mastery: Try, Fail, and Try Again

Ensuring students understand the current material before moving forward to the next lesson is necessary but often overlooked in the American educational system. Rather than focusing on and expecting mastery of the subject matter before starting a new one, schools simply accept the passing scores (or even failing ones).

This pattern creates gaps in the students’ knowledge, which prevent them from fully understanding the next lessons, as these often build on the material that was first taught, notes Sal Khan of Khan Academy in his Ted Talk. He notes that applying a mastery learning style, or continuing to work towards full mastery of a subject regardless of how long it may take, pays off later during more advanced lessons.

Moreover, mastery learning frames failure as a stepping stone towards reaching the end goal. It helps students gain greater perseverance and keep trying until they gain mastery of the subject. It also normalizes how each person learns at different speeds and reduces the stigma of earning low scores.

Student-centered Learning

Student-centered Learning Khan highlighted the importance of each student gaining agency over their learning or applying a self-learning system, as well. Students benefit more from learning at their own time and pace rather than constantly trying to keep up with a standardized learning model.

Student-centric or learner-centered teaching methods are also highly engaging. These methods include using online learning materials, gamification, and engaging exercises. Offering different avenues of learning the same material allows students to work according to their strengths and understand the subject better. Videos, in particular, allow students to stop, pause, and rewind a lecture until they fully absorb the lessons.

Trying different educational ideas and pushing for educational reform is necessary to help both students and teachers get the most out of the educational system. Granting more autonomy in how they accomplish their tasks enables students to master subjects better and allows teachers to focus on the individual needs of their students.

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