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Mastery vs Performance

Riding a Bike

Our world is based on performance. Our students must be educated to perform in a goal-oriented society. Students must pass the test to achieve their goals. This is backwards thinking. Please do not mistake this last statement as a rejection of setting and achieving goals, but it is important we examine many of the goals set by conventional educators and how those goals impact learning.


Think back to the rite of passage of learning to ride a bike. Did you learn to ride a bike or did you master the act of riding a bike? If your experience of learning to ride a bike resembled mine, it went something like this. First of all, you knew what the goal was. You could visualize the outcome. There was no timeframe on how quickly you had to learn. You were allowed to receive guidance. The steps toward the end result were in a progression: training wheels, followed by a parent holding the back of the bike, and then letting go when your progress was steady. Failure was part of the process. Trial and error was mandatory. You eventually mastered the art of riding a bike. You were not graded on your performance. Your parents clapped and cheered regardless of how wobbly your first ride.


Traditional classrooms deliver information that values performance not mastery. If most of the learning is directed by the teacher with students sitting in rows preparing for an assessment, it is easier to catalogue performance. Grades make it easy to gauge performance, and they inhibit mastery. There is only one goal when learning to ride a bike. It does not matter what process you used or how quickly you accomplished the task. It is all about mastery.

The Montessori classroom environment puts a premium on mastery. While the end goal of the traditional and Montessori classrooms are the same, the process they take are completely different. One emphasizes performance; one expects mastery.


-W Slade (Head of School)