What Happens When we Make Time Variable But Student Achievement Fixed?

In Salman Khan’s One World Schoolhouse, he systematically walks through many limitations of traditional classroom learning designs, providing examples of how his experiments at Khan Academy are helping him consider ways to move beyond these limitations. In one part of the book, Khan contrasts two simple formulas for thinking about the learner experience and how a mastery learning approach can be a significant advancement in our learning experiences. However, I’m going to add to more to his list of possibilities, reflecting on the impact of each one for learners.

Possibility #1: Fixed Time + Variable Level Student Learning / Mastery

What Is Your Classroom FormulaThis is the typical classroom learning experience. The teacher manages the time in the class. The class usually lasts for 45-minutes. A series of lessons add up to a unit with length determined by the teacher. That is all followed by a summative assessment, measuring what students learned. Regardless of student performance on the test, the teacher ends that unit and takes the entire class on to the next unit. Again, this is regardless of what has or has not been learned. Students are taught more as a group than as a collection of individual students with distinct needs.

Khan spends time describing the experience of his niece, a bright and dedicated learner who scored poorly on an elementary school math placement test. As Khan tutored her, he discovered that her score was largely tied to difficulty with a single math concept, unit conversion. For some reason, that concept did not “click” for her initially, which led to ongoing confusion with later lessons.

This happens to many of us in learning environments, and it is especially problematic in content areas where ideas build upon each other. Miss one of the building blocks and your performance continues to decline for the rest of the semester. I worked with a graduate student recently who teaches high school math, and he was implementing a flipped classroom model for his graduate capstone project. He explained that, prior to using the flipped classroom model, it was typical to watch the average student test score gradually decline throughout the semester in his Alegebra II class. Why is that? It is likely because the number of concepts that students missed would build up through the semester, causing ongoing struggles with later and more complex concepts.

This is how it works in learning environments that have largely fixed time, but they remain content with variable student performance. Some students will get it in that fixed time. Others will not. That is just how school works, some argue.

Possibility #2: Variable Time + Variable Level of Student Learning / Mastery

Others have come to realize that fixed time is a problem, and they address it by creating more opportunities for personalized and self-paced student learning. So, they open up the possibility for one student to work at a quick pace and another to work at a slower pace. This allows learners more opportunity to master concepts that they might have missed in a fixed pace learning environment. There is a limit to how much variability is possible in many traditional learning environments, although this is a possibility about which many homeschooling and online learning environment boast. In the end, student performance is also variable, as there many not be adequate feedback and tutoring for students to understand how to progress and how/if they are progressing.

Possibility #3: Fixed Time + Fixed Level of Student Learning / Mastery

The only way I’ve seen people put this possibility into practice is by being highly selective. Only let people into the school or learning experience who learn easily and quickly at the provided pace. As a result, the level of performance is relatively high across the student population. Of course, this is not scalable. It does not address the majority of us learners. In fact, it is a model that really only seems to help those who problem don’t need much help in the first place.

Possibility #4: Variable Time + Fixed Level of Student Learning / Mastery

This leads us to a final possibility, one that Salman Khan promotes in his book. This is the context like possibility two, only we build ample tools for tutoring, mentoring and feedback for the students; and we set mastery goals for each learner. It is more self-paced, allowing students to review and return to a single concept until it is mastered. Only then does the student move on to the next concept. While one student may take longer than another, the end result across students is more constant. The goal is for as many students as possible to reach mastery, and the time is shortened or lengthened to help achieve such a goal.

This works. As Khan notes in his book, mastery learning is not new. We have ample research going back to the 1970s in support of it. The fact is that a mastery learning approach with variable time for learners consistently results in higher student achievement. So, why do we not see it in more schools? That seems to be related to the existing school culture and the teachers. It is hard to re-imagine what a school day or experience looks like that fully embraces a vision for variable time, and some still want to see more of a bell curve of student achievement. The variable time / fixed learning vision might call for setting aside strict adherence to grade levels and other categories that dominate many schools, although this is not always essential to get some healthy gains in student learning. In the same way, this model calls for setting aside traditional teacher-directed classroom time. Without adequate training and a belief in the benefits of mastery learner, teachers are likely to struggle with classroom and time management. How do you manage a class when everyone is working at a different pace? Some teachers would not know where to start, but there are more examples of teachers who get it and that is resulting in more students who “get it” it.

What is different from the 1970s to today is that our technological capabilities have caught up with the vision of mastery learning. We have exciting developments in areas like adapative learning software and resources for a flipped or inverted classroom model. As promoted in Khan’s book, a flipped classroom model is one possibility for teachers. As more teachers learn about and experiment with this possibility, we may well see exciting progress in learning environments that embrace this vision for variable time that leads to more fixed levels of student achievement. Of course, the existing policies, accepted procedures and dominant culture in schools will resist this practice when the model calls for something different. Yet, even within the confines of existing schools, I continue to learn about promising results. The graduate student that I mentioned above, the one who tried the flipped classroom in his Algebra II class, saw an over 30% increase in student performance on math tests when he created a flipped classroom model that opened the door to more of a mastery learning approach! He also noticed that student test scores consistently increased from test to test during the semester and not gradually dropping as they did with the traditional instructional model. Such findings are promising possibilities if we are going to make progress in a vision for personalized learning, one that embraces the challenge to move away from teaching groups of students toward helping each student learn.