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Dr. Grauer's Column - Abandoning The Master

Abandoning The Master

At The Grauer School, a home for inquiry into the art of teaching, we have spent 30 years developing and reiterating a program called mastery learning. Mastery learning has become the centerpiece of our school, a game changing methodology that students and teachers embody for life, and an aspirational philosophy that impacts all aspects of our lives. I know of no practice in our school that functions at a higher level of refinement or impact. And it ought to be abandoned.

Benjamin Bloom coined the term mastery learning and, though our little lab school can hardly claim the impact of this “master” of educational technology, I would guess that we have put at least as much effort into this concept as he did. I hope we did right by him, as well, though maybe it’s time to move on.

Dr. Stuart Grauer at the beach with 9th Grade students on a Grauer Surfing expedition - April 21, 2022

Mastery learning is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, perhaps first formally proposed by Bloom in 1968. The strategy maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. Few schools can practice this, as a mere matter of numbers: few teachers can be expected to treat the individual learning development of every student in five classes of 35 students as an iterative process and still move the whole class along towards a prescribed, standardized end. Grauer’s class size of 12 and small, responsive administration made us a legitimate lab of what can be done towards the so-called mastery learning approach. We have learned a lot.

At Grauer, the commitment to achieve mastery enabled us to turn learning into an iterative process: the student is given work back with teacher responses, so they can “upgrade,” again and again. Work is viewed as formative rather than summative until such point that the teacher and student determine they are ready to move on. Completed and turned in work is viewed much as a legal brief in rounds of rebuttal, or the President’s speech as it goes through another round of scrutiny by staff, or like a screenwriter’s script as it goes through draft after draft at the fancies of the producers and director. This is in great opposition to much schooling, wherein (to pick a metaphor) the theater goers might be expected to watch a screening of the very first script the writer turns in, graded by the producers, and so considered done. The writer would learn little and viewers would often be dissatisfied and confused. Screenwriting or any writing could not work that way.

Writing is widely viewed in the “iterative” way, as expressed in the maxim “writing is rewriting.” But not just writing. So is mathematics and so is scientific experimentation. And so are human relationships as they develop. The whole of academic expression and achievement is a give and take, back and forth, as knowledge develops through teacher-student interplay, and deeper purposes emerge. In our view, at Grauer, a great school embraces this iterative process as the most basic tenet of teaching and learning. Following some of this interplay, we have observed for a great many years a great many of the most well intentioned among us noting: “We have achieved mastery so we may move on.” Really?

Grauer students on an overnight backpacking adventure in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness Preserve - April 19, 2021

The problem is the term mastery. Upon scrutiny, we are becoming increasingly unsure what this means and implies—particularly as human conscience and consciousness makes room for a more inclusive kind of schooling. First off, we do not know what constitutes the “completion” or mastery of learning in most areas or student projects. And while we acknowledge there are intuitive and practical stopping points on much work, the idea that any significant learning is “done” and hence done with makes sense only with the simplest basic skills and rarely with any larger scholarship.

But also important, as we seek a bigger vision, we no longer understand the goodness or relevance of being “a master.” Historically, the master is the one in control. Historically, the master is the man. And I hesitate to mention that the dichotomy of “master and slave” pretty much put a dagger in the black heart of the whole thing. That is there and we all know it. 

At Grauer, we long ago dropped my own title of “headmaster,” in favor of “head of school,” but even that most likely deserves some scrutiny in another essay. And if the female gender version of master is mistress, does that really carry the same import and baggage as master? Really?

There are other terms for teacher which are at least as valid and yet almost opposite to master:  healer, guide, facilitator.

There are other words for master, as well:  expert, captain, chief, which don’t pertain to “achieving an impressive enough level of learning to warrant moving on”… Indeed, an expert is often one who is so dedicated to a field of study that they make it the subject of their lifetime search, going deeper rather than “moving on.”

There are other forms of master which have nothing to do with teaching and learning and serve to embarrass or at best tease the moniker:  boss, kahuna, honcho, lord, commander.

There are also some venerable, master-related terms special to teaching and learning:  sage, pundit, virtuoso, guru and these names tend to suggest the gifts teachers offer more than the role of even a benevolent master.

Grauer Seniors Nadia and Ella kayaking near Catalina Island on The Grauer School's Spring Expeditions - April 20, 2021

In the end we can see, through consideration of the various possible meanings of master, that what this term at best aspires to but increasingly fails to connote is: one who is capable and deserving of teaching something. This is what we have been meaning and not saying all along. Indeed, just as we can watch the descendance of the ancient word master, drowning from its own baggage, we can watch the rise of history’s greatest and by far most underrated monikers for the one who was once called master: It is a venerable, near-perfect term which also has suffered from attribution error but warrants a re-birth. Here is the term, the perfect term though long taken for granted, worthy of auspiciousness:

Teacher

A recent assignment by Grauer’s own eminent teacher and teaching role model Clayton Payne highlights this worth. Clayton, teacher of algebra, assigned his class to prepare something they could teach the class. When students pressed for clarification about which algebra topic he wanted taught, he replied, “I do not mean for you to teach math. I mean for you to teach ANYTHING. Something you know so well that you deserve to teach it.” It did not take long for his students to recognize the challenge required in attempting to live up to the term “teacher.” Clayton’s lesson here is particularly salient because he has repeatedly eschewed supposedly larger, administrative titles at our school in favor of evolving in his identity, at once extraordinary and humble, as: 

Teacher (though we continue to force the title of dean upon Clayton in our public records.)

Clayton Payne teaching students advanced lessons in drumming during a Grauer Spring Expeditions workshop - April 19, 2021

My point is that the proper meaning and attribution for the student attainment of a “mastery learning level” would be more accurately and ethically called something like: “teacher level.” “You are ready to teach this.” If we are to honor the process of schooling, we can do no better than to honor our desired level of learning with the term:  teacher level. This is our actual, normally unstated aspiration for our students and leaders. This also reclaims our field’s ancient esteem. 

In other languages, the term teacher translates into the highest-respected roles societies have ever known:  kahuna, sage, rabbi, and the originally well-intentioned but now conflicted “master.” Etymologically, through time, it is striking how often the term teacher crosses paths with the term leader, as well. But the transformational leader does not need to be the greatest expert and is happy to see his students and followers surpass him/her and to become the leader — or teacher, on occasion.

One of the great teachers in my life, Margaret Wheatley, has often said, “a leader is someone who is willing to help.” This is not necessarily true of the master, a role that implies domination. The Willing, as leaders, are naturally helpful, sympathetic and responsive to the needs of others. Hence, their students naturally are safe to find their authentic voices and create their own worldviews. They are ultimately treated as teachers and learners, both, in our best lessons. There are times to realize: “There go my students, and I must follow them, for I am their teacher!”

9th Grade students discussing mindfulness at the beach during their Spring Expedition workshop - April 21, 2021

In our best lessons, the question and the answer are concordant, the benevolent teacher knows at least intuitively that one is not superior to the other. The teacher and student are only possible through one-another, hence one cannot master another—synchronicity is the term Carl Jung used for this aspect of human relationships. The idea that either one has to be dependent upon the other might be good for human amusement or ego, but it is not the way great learners are developed by great teachers.

Whereas master, boss, commander create dichotomies and power differentials that may sometimes be useful, such as in war, the ultimate goal of the best teachers I have known or have studied is the deemphasis of separation between teacher and student, so that we are all teaching one another, all listening in an absence of ego and rank other than the natural order which evolves: a tacit, earned respect in the room that becomes part of the atmosphere but is never asked for.

We are not masters, we are teachers. We can replace the Master of Arts degree with its actual value: Teacher of Arts. The Master of Science can rightfully be a Teacher of Science—even if they do not teach, their degree affirms their ability to hold that level of clarity and trust.

Mastery as a concept comes with the presumption of arrival, completion, as well as superiority, while enlightened teaching keeps the inquiry humble and open. One closes doors, the other opens them. 

We are not masters, we are learners. Our delusions of “man’s mastery over nature” are likely to be the end of us. Likewise, mastery over the learner engenders separation before connection. It is our respect and love for those who have devoted themselves to the teaching of a discipline and of the young that elevates us as individuals and as a school, and that gives us sustaining purpose.

Grauer students painting watercolors at Balboa Park during a Spring Expedition trip to downtown San Diego - April 19, 2021

I understand that some teaching and learning environments are so complex, so big, so politicized and so entrenched that the pursuit of an ideal, self-directed, or democratic classroom seems preposterous. I understand that the use of force, however subtly implied in the concept of the “master,” will continue to prevail around the world. But I want my students to freely admire and trust their teacher, not obey their master. When students can freely teach what they have learned, in their own voice, we know this to have occurred. 

If even for an hour, once freed of the master-subservient subtheme, the teacher is freer to honor all kinds of learners and minds, embrace polarity before certainty, listen with an open heart, and remove intimidation, force, and judgement from the school. If ever the teacher were “expert” in the art of teaching, it can only be reflected in the presence of the good student: one the constellation in the sky, the other the eyes of a child, looking up.

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Dr. Stuart Grauer at the beach with 9th Grade students on a Grauer Surfing expedition - April 21, 2022

Grauer students on an overnight backpacking adventure in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness Preserve - April 19, 2021

Grauer Seniors Nadia and Ella kayaking near Catalina Island on The Grauer School's Spring Expeditions - April 20, 2021

Clayton Payne teaching students advanced lessons in drumming during a Grauer Spring Expeditions workshop - April 19, 2021

9th Grade students discussing mindfulness at the beach during their Spring Expedition workshop - April 21, 2021

Grauer students painting watercolors at Balboa Park during a Spring Expedition trip to downtown San Diego - April 19, 2021

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