Mastery Isn’t a Ladder; It’s a Safari

When I was a teacher in DC, one of my very favorite students came up to me and she was really excited.

“Mr. Hassan,” she said, “Ms. Eisele just gave me my reading assessment… I got to reading level Y! That means if I increase my reading level by one more letter, I will get to level Z! That’s the last level!”

“That’s great!” I told her. “You must have worked really hard and read a lot of books at home.”

“Yeah!” she said. “And,” she added gleefully, “once I reach the last level, I won’t ever have to read a book again!”

The problem is that they’ve been given the impression by adults that mastery is a ladder. That all you have to do is keep climbing. That once you’ve reached the top of the ladder, you’ve achieved mastery. The mastery game we play with kids is more about the what and the how than it is about the why.

Why do we want to be a proficient reader? It’s not to get to the next reading level – it’s so that we can quickly and efficiently learn new things about the world to solve problems or to express our original ideas. Reading a text about the rock cycle isn’t very meaningful if it doesn’t make us stop and think the next time we pick up a stone on the playground. Comprehending a text about the revolutionary war doesn’t mean anything unless we connect it to the problems of economic inequality that exist in today’s world. Mastery is not a ladder, it’s a safari! Project based learning – active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. I was once told by an administrator, STOP letting kids play with rocks in your geology reading lessons – you’re a reading teacher, NOT a science teacher.

I tried an experiment a few years ago when I was applying for a teaching job at numerous schools in DC. At the end of my interview, when the administrators asked me if I had any other questions, I asked them what project have you seen a student engage in, that has amazed you, that has challenged your own thinking, or that has provided something useful to the community. I wanted to hear how students were connecting their skills to the world around them, a world that they are desperately trying to understand and heal. The answer I got most of the time was… that their favorite project was … kids growing their reading levels. And that is a fundamental skill and so important – but it isn’t a project.

If we have the courage to allow students to use what they’ve learned with their reading and math skills to change the world today, even in a small way, then we are preparing them to be leaders.

We cannot afford to settle for anything less.