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Learning: It’s more than mastery

As our perpetual wrangling over the future of education continues, let’s make an effort to expand our definition of learning beyond mastery alone.

It is telling that most mainstream discussion of education policy adopts mastery as the overarching goal, with little attention paid to identity or creativity.
REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

What’s wrong with defining learning as “mastery”? Nothing, so long as we don’t stop there. Unfortunately, too many of us (including myself) do.

Michael Diedrich

The basic premise here comes from Jal Mehta at Education Week’s excellent “Learning Deeply” blog. Mehta, a Harvard education professor, has worked with Sarah Fine, a Harvard Ed.D. student, to develop a definition of deeper learning. It contains three elements: mastery, identity, and creativity.

Mastery is the aspect of learning most familiar to education policy analysts and advocates. As defined by Mehta and Fine, it addresses how well students have developed knowledge and skill in a particular learning domain. For deep learning, however, they argue that mastery alone is not enough.

Identity and creativity

Identity is another aspect of learning. Mehta and Fine paraphrase identity as, “It matters to me.” This idea certainly exists in education, and there are many teachers who are masters at helping students learn in ways that are personally relevant and meaningful. Still, it’s a concept that’s too often treated as important to student engagement in the service of classroom management rather than as an integral aspect of deeper learning.

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Finally, creativity in the context of deeper learning is about helping students not merely receive knowledge, but to actively create it. Synthesizing all three, Mehta writes, “Identity provides the motivation which fuels the commitment to the subject, building mastery is what differentiates learning that is fun from learning that reflects real understanding, and creativity is what separates remembering others’ ideas from developing your own.” That’s surely a goal to which we can aspire, but many of our debates stay firmly within the context of mastery alone.

As one example, take another recent Education Week piece, a commentary by Heather Zavadsky. In the process of laying out five characteristics that can help districts support school improvement, she deploys many of contemporary education debate’s greatest hits.

Central offices, we are told, need to value “customization, innovation, and equity.” A district should deploy, “[a] strategy and tools to monitor quality and coherence for the system and its clients (students, the community, businesses).” To the extent instruction itself is addressed, it’s the need to, “transform teaching and learning to meet the new economy’s needs.”

How that last point is to be realized remains a little unclear. “[A] strong set of curriculum standards delivered in a meaningful way,” is good, but it shouldn’t lapse into, “[d]isconnected classes delivered through an old-world lecture style.”

Assumption is that mastery is the goal

Throughout the whole piece, the key assumption is that we are working toward mastery, with little attention given to identity or creativity.

One might think that the article by Harvard education professor Paul Reville would get to these points, seeing as how the piece calls for better differentiation to meet student needs, greater capacity to address gaps in students’ health and well-being, and more opportunities for out of school learning. However, Reville’s arguments for these needs are framed in terms of mastery, citing national test score trends, international skill comparisons, and a call for, “a system that educates all our students to a high level so that they can successfully participate in our high-skills/high-knowledge 21st-century economy.”

Of course, there’s no reason to expect Zavadsky or Reville to adopt Mehta and Fine’s definitions wholesale. Still, it is telling that most mainstream discussion of education policy adopts mastery as the overarching goal, with little attention paid to identity or creativity, even just as concepts without the use of Mehta and Fine’s terminology.

Expanding the definition of learning

This is important because, as Mehta has observed, no one approach is required to combine these three goals, making them scalable if we’re willing to prioritize the whole set. When educators in progressive, project-based schools lose focus on mastery, identity and creativity alone are not enough. Similarly, in regimented, “no excuses” schools that too often devalue identity and creativity in their relentless focus on mastery, individual teachers will still find ways to bring those key aspects of learning back into the classroom and lead their students to deeper learning.

As our perpetual wrangling over the future of education continues, let’s make an effort to expand our definition of learning beyond mastery alone. Many teachers have been calling for this for years, but it’s clear that too many policymakers and commentators (and I include myself in this group) have paid, at best, lip service to a definition of learning deeper than mastery alone. We need more community members and leaders pushing to expand the scope of the debate.

Michael Diedrich, who taught English for two years as a Teach for America corps member, is a master of public policy student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where he is pursuing a concentration in education policy. He is also an Education Fellow at Minnesota 2020, on whose website this article originally appeared.


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