What is Mastery Learning and How Do You Implement It Effectively?

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John Davis

This is the Ten Minute Teacher podcast with your host Vicki Davis.


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Vicki Davis

Today’s, sponsor is Dell, where Black Friday starts now. Dell has deals for listeners of the show and readers of the Cool Cat Teacher blog going live right now through November 27th of 2022. They have everything from computers, gaming, laptops, or even a slick wireless mouse. So stay tuned at the end of the show to get that link and get your deals on some awesome Dell computers. (Link for Deals: http://www.dell.com/epp/coolcatteacher )


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Vicki Davis

So I’m so excited about our guest today. We have John Bergmann with us and he’s written 11 books. He’s in his 36th year in education. 28 years teaching, Jon, that is so awesome. And you’re back in the classroom, aren’t you?


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Jon Bergmann

Full time high school science teacher.


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Vicki Davis

And I also love the fact that he’s just released a new book in October to the Mastery Learning Handbook, which debuted as the number one new release in curriculum and instruction. So John, for those who follow you, they know you’re “the Flipped Classroom guy,” right? One of the two guys who helped create that. But now you’re talking mastery learning.


What is Mastery Learning?

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Vicki Davis

So talk us through the the transition and what does mastery learning mean?


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Jon Bergmann

So machine learning is a simple idea, right? You have to pass a driver’s test in order to get your driver’s license. But if you fail it, you take it again. And so that’s the big idea of mastery learning, is that if a student fails a test, right, so summative assessment, then they take it again until they reach mastery.


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Jon Bergmann

And it’s just an amazing way to teach. It works. There’s research. There’s thousands of teachers across the world using the model. It’s amazing.


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Vicki Davis

Okay, so how did Flipped Classroom lead into mastery and is flipping part of mastery at all? Well, actually.


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Jon Bergmann

You know, when Aaron, I first started the whole flipped classroom, I wrote that first book, Flip Your Classroom. We actually devoted a couple of chapters to Mastery Learning or to Flip Mastery, we called it. The genesis of this was when an exchange student showed up to my class second semester, the high school chemistry class.


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Jon Bergmann

The counselor came to me and said, John, I got this exchange student she wants to take chemistry. It’s January’s – something like that. And I said, she said chemistry before and he said no. And I said, Well, then she can’t. And then I paused and I said, Well, you know, we just started the whole flipped classroom. Well, she’s got these videos.


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Jon Bergmann

You could start at like Unit one and kind of work through it. And she got through like three quarters of the content in a semester, and that’s when Aaron and I began to say, “Well, what if we kind of did a mastery thing?” 


And so we started playing around with mastery. But then my trajectory, you know, the flipped classroom thing exploded and then I did the whole kind of world travel thing, but I always felt like mastery really was the better way to go.


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Jon Bergmann

And then when I felt called to come back to the classroom, I came back to classroom in 2019. I knew that I was going to teach via mastery.


What Does Mastery Look Like In the Classroom?

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Vicki Davis

Pick one of your classes, let’s say your hardest class. What’s the hardest class you teach right now?


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Jon Bergmann

John I teach chemistry and physics, so.


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Vicki Davis

Both of them. So pick either one. What does mastery look like in one of those courses, both of which we know are tough?


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Jon Bergmann

Because I create cheesy videos about physics and chemistry content. The kid will come to class and then in the course of a week he has to do X number of things. They’re going to about three lessons, which is going to include watching a video on some content. So recently my students in physics flipped physics. They’ve been learning about projectile motion.


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Jon Bergmann

You shoot a rocket off of a cliff and it has to hit something. Or, you know, how far does it go? How long was in the air? Questions like that. And so I’ve made videos and how physicists know how to figure out where the ball’s going to land. Then the students do a series of lessons, let’s say I think it was five or six lessons in the course of a unit, and they take a test and if they pass the test, then they move on.


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Jon Bergmann

Part of the test, for example, and this one was they actually had to hit something. So we have this little launcher and they have to actually shoot the launcher. And I’ve got video of them putting a round object two inches round, and then they shoot the launcher and they have one shot and they hit it on the first attempt.


How Long Does It Take to Transition from Traditional Teaching to Mastery?

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Vicki Davis

So how long does it take you to sort of restructure from the, “traditional set up” for chemistry or physics into more of a mastery model?


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Jon Bergmann

That’s a good question. So I have worked with a lot of teachers, you know, in my sort of other hat as flip learning / mastery learning guru guy. What I do with schools is I kind of will take them through a process of learning some of the basics of flipped because flipped allows this to happen. So you need to learn some of the basics of flipped learning so that you can then do the mastery learning cycle.


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Jon Bergmann

So I think it’s a year long, two year long process probably for most teachers. Now, if you’re a brand new teacher, come out of the door. I’d say just start teaching this way.


Do You Get Pushback on Mastery Learning?

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Vicki Davis

Do you ever get pushback on mastery learning?


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Jon Bergmann

Now? There was some a little bit, but, you know, I’ve had such great success with my students that I mean, the parents are all on board.


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Vicki Davis

Kind of pushback is it?


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Jon Bergmann

At first, it’s just because it’s different. I think it’s more of that. But, you know, when I explained that, you know, that your students are going to get multiple opportunities, it’s my job. I’m your I’m your kid’s teacher-coach. And I want them to learn. And, you know, especially maybe in what I teach, chemistry and physics, the parents that, you know, even though I’m at a high performing high school, the parents know they can’t teach their kids chemistry and physics, even though they all probably had it, but they don’t remember it from high school.


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Jon Bergmann

So I haven’t had much pushback. You know, there’s been some you know, as I interviewed people for the book, I interviewed quite a few different teachers who across the world who are using the model. And there’s been some pushback. But I imagine I felt like if they communicated it well with their parent community, then it there’s not been a great pushback.


The Top Mistake People Make When Implementing Mastery Learning

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Vicki Davis

So okay, so fill in the blank. The number one mistake, take teachers who are starting to use mastery learning make is typically ____________.


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Jon Bergmann

Not dealing proactively with kids who fall behind. The biggest issue in mastery learning is kids who fall behind. And how do you keep them-ish together? That’s that’s the biggest problem. 


And if you don’t find a way around that, it’ll fall apart. In fact, that first year that Aaron and I decided to do this way back in the day, I went to Aaron in the spring and said, “I’m ready to give up because it’s not working, because we’ve got such a gap between our front kids who are moving, you know, faster through the content and our kids who are slow.”


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Jon Bergmann

And so we had to devise a strategy to keep the kids closer together. That was the biggest issue.


The Strategy to Keep Kids Together Even at a Personalized Mastery Rate

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Vicki Davis

So what was that strategy? Obviously, it’s going to be in the book, but can you summarize it for us?


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Jon Bergmann

A couple of strategies. So for example, actually I had a big AHA when writing the book. I was talking to sort of two people simultaneously. Andrew Swan, a history teacher on the East Coast. I was in New Jersey maybe, and a Finnish researcher who’s done some research in master learning and I finally came to one. One of the things I’ve discovered is that mastery especially works well.


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Jon Bergmann

This research says this especially works well for the kids who are behind not as well for the advanced kid and that was my experience. And so I thought, well, how do I do this? And what Andrew does is he has different levels of mastery. And so to get an A, you do X, Y, Z, to get a B, you get X and Y.


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Jon Bergmann

And so you have to really make some decisions curricularly what’s the essential objectives and what are the nice to know objectives. So my students have a choice between taking, you know, one of three different tests, the deep understanding test, where I really go all out and ask the hardest questions, I can think of the clear test and then the basic test.


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Jon Bergmann

And so you have to make a decision what’s super important that every kid learn and what is the nice to know. And so identifying essential objectives is key. So they actually literally get a different test to test for mastery at the at the summative test level.


Taking Different Tests and How Parents Respond

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Vicki Davis

Wow. And that would be what I would think parents would probably push back on, huh?


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Jon Bergmann

Yeah. Some of them are a little confused about that. But, you know, most of my students, you know, I don’t know most it’s it depends on the test is last test like saying chemistry was a particularly hard test. And in the book I talk about three levels. 


Jon has moved to Two Levels, Not Three

And at this stage I’ve decided to move to two levels and I what I’ve found is that this test, it’s been like 30, 70, 30 hard tests and 70% easier test.


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Jon Bergmann

But the previous one, it was reversed. And then part of it is just the content was just it’s more difficult that we’re in right now. And I have a feeling the next test, it’s going to be back to more deep test kids.


What Do You Do With Students Who Don’t Aim High Enough

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Vicki Davis

So what do you do with that student who is not shooting high enough that you think they can really understand the deep content but they are going a little easier? Do you ever have conversations with those students?


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Jon Bergmann

Absolutely. And then that’s when I you know, again, part of that is about, you know, being a good teacher and building a relationship with the kid. And when you build a relationship, you can challenge and say, why are you playing it low? You know, you can play higher. Why not? Why aren’t you doing this?


Easy Wins for Mastery Learning 

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Vicki Davis

And as you talk to some of the top academic schools and administrators are listening to you talk and they’re thinking about getting the book, which is a great book to get, and they say, “okay, John, I’m willing to try this at least in a course or two.” Is there any low hanging fruit like a course or two that you think, yes, this is a pretty easy win.


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Vicki Davis

Let’s you know, if you have a teacher aboard that can do it well with those courses.


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Jon Bergmann

BE Well. BE Again, the research has said that Mastery Learning works best with lower achieving students. So I’ve been having conversations with some of my math teachers at my school who teach some of our lower level math classes, and that’s where I think that would be a good low hanging fruit, especially if it’s a kind of a skills based course where there’s certain skills that you need to learn.


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Jon Bergmann

I think mastery learning has it’s a little bit easier to implement it there than a more open ended class where there isn’t a set of specific learning outcomes. I think it makes it harder. I mean, like I said, say, take a high school English class where it’s a lot more conversation and whatnot. I think it’s a harder class to do flip mastery than it is, say, a high school algebra class.


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Jon Bergmann

But I also know an entire elementary school that’s done this entire thing and everybody’s doing mastery in every subject at the school. So when I talk about this, yeah, that’s in Ashurst, New Zealand, these guys are total rockstars.


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Vicki Davis

So okay, so the book is The Mastery Learning Handbook. 


Where Can Educators Connect to Learn About Mastery Learning?

Are there any other communities of learners or educators that are kind of having conversations around this topic?  Where should educators go to jump in?


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Jon Bergmann

Yeah, if you search mastery learning, community based learning, you’ll find some stuff. There’s some folks at Teach Better. They’re doing some stuff. I highlight them in the book. They use what’s called the Grid Method for Mastery Learning. I’m a big fan. 


Rethinking Transcripts

There’s another organization called Mastery Transcript Consortium where they’re trying us to to re think how we even think about transcripts.


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Jon Bergmann

You know we have these transcripts as ABCD is 4.0 is whatever and they think we need to completely rethink how we do. If you just even Google competency based learning, there’s so many good organizations out there doing great work based learning. This is basically, I mean what the book really, it’s kind of a how to manual.


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Jon Bergmann

There’s a lot of people talked about competency-based learning and mastery learning for a long time. But this is a guide for a teacher who wants to do it for herself in her room. You can do it in a department or even a school, but the idea is how do you do it day to day? How do you deal with kids who get behind, get ahead?


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Jon Bergmann

You know, what do you do when things break? It’s, you know, born out of a classroom, my classroom. And then all the other teachers I talk to, I want her to to make something useful so that you can actually do it, not just, like talk about doing it, but do it.


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Vicki Davis

That’s awesome. Well, Jon, thank you for sharing with us this is just a little bit of a highlight. I suggest following Jon everywhere he is and picking up the Mastery Learning Handbook. Thanks, Jon. 


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Dell – Sponsor of Todays’ show

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You’ve been listening to the Ten Minute Teacher podcast. If you like this program, you can find more at coolcatteacher.com. If you wish to see more content by Vicki Davis, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter under @coolcatteacher. Thank you for listening.