Why Teachers Should Focus On Mastery, Not The Official Curriculum


Teachers in other educational systems are obsessed with dragging students through curriculums. The main goal is to get from point A to point B, no matter the cost of learning. 

Most of us experienced this approach in school. The first week in math would be coordinate systems, then quadratic equations and number theory. The goal wasn’t to move naturally from one set of concepts to the next but to simply get through it all in time for the exam. 

This approach is okay for some students – those who are bright, motivated, or both. But it isn’t the best strategy for the average student who has to move onto a new topic before they understand the first one. 


That’s why many teachers are embracing the concept of mastery. Students can only move on to the next topic if they graduate from the original one. 

If there’s something they don’t understand, that’s a reason to go over it again and find out where they are going wrong. 

This post looks at why mastery might be a better approach than following the curriculum. It explores methods teachers can use to find a balance and build roadmaps for their students that result in real learning and knowledge gained. 

Here’s why mastery is superior: 

It Reduces Achievement Gaps

Some students are star performers, always doing well on tests and grasping concepts. However, there is always a cadre who simply can’t keep up.

The primary reason for this is lack of mastery. Students who don’t grasp elementary concepts can’t move on to more complex ones. 

Fortunately, focusing on mastery helps to reduce these achievement gaps. While students will still progress at different paces, everyone should develop a fundamental understanding. Really getting the basics helps students with inference and allows them to learn new topics faster.

Deeper Understanding

Mastery also engenders deeper understanding, allowing the educational process to generate value long-term. Students finish courses and exams and take knowledge with them for the rest of their lives. 

Developing a deeper understanding is possible because students can approach questions from multiple angles. Instead of simply learning canned ways to solve problems, students can use principles to develop unique methods of solving problems that don’t require following a set formula. 

Once this deep understanding becomes established, it is harder to dislodge. Students are likely to recall deep lessons well into the future instead of forgetting them over the vacation period. 

More Confidence

Greater confidence is another benefit of mastery. Students who overcome educational challenges and feel like they are really grasping something are more likely to succeed. 

Low confidence is a barrier to education and prevents students from performing at their best. Worries about the work can lead to procrastination and poorer results than had the student simply worked consistently from the start. 

Developing confidence doesn’t come from the outside. Instead, it emerges from within when a student genuinely believes they understand a topic. 

Again, that’s where mastery can help. When students can fall back on existing knowledge, trying to develop new understanding feels less problematic. 

Less Rushing Through Material

Mastery also discourages the practice of rushing through educational material and trying to get to the end as soon as possible. Students are more concerned about the work itself instead of fulfilling quotas or exam requirements. 

This reason explains why school consultancies want to sell educational scaffolds. These build knowledge layer by layer instead of incentivizing students to cram everything in the last few weeks before the exam. 

Avoiding rushing also means fewer knowledge gaps. Students can go into exam halls feeling more confident about what they know (and what they don’t), allowing them to be more selective about the questions they answer (if applicable). 

Reduced Focus On Rote Memorization

Learning through mastery reduces the focus of learning on rote memorization. Students begin to learn things for the sake of it (and even because they enjoy it), instead of because they must. 

This reduced memorization gives students the space they need to develop their own pedagogy. Kids learn how to think and use tools to further their understanding and really grasp what teachers are trying to tell them. 

Memorization is a learning system used in some countries, but these cultures tend to lack innovation. Students learn that what matters is ticking the right box on the multiple choice test, not actually understanding what’s going on in any given area. 

Rote memorization helps students up to a point, but it eventually stifles originality. Students can’t think outside the box or come at problems from different angles using the principles they’ve learned. 

More Personalized Learning

Focusing on mastery also allows teachers to offer their students a more personalized learning experience. Kids can adjust the pace of learning to their requirements instead of having to go along with the flow (the usual need). 

For example, advanced students with a genuine understanding of the more basic concepts can move on to the next steps, while more elementary ones can keep tackling the fundamentals until they feel they have a firm understanding. 

Students shouldn’t move on immediately. Instead, teachers should test them to check whether they’ve really grasped a topic or concept, or whether it just looks that way from their test scores. 

Many students become good at learning how to answer exams in ways teachers and markers want. However, their responses often hide a lack of understanding, preventing them from achieving what they might. 

Reduced Risk Of Being Left Behind

Finally, mastery reduces the risk of classes leaving students behind. By ratcheting up learning through topics, teachers can ensure everyone understands the basic principles before moving on. 

With the standard curriculum, this safeguard isn’t in place. Students can suffer from a lack of understanding during the entire course, forcing them to cram at the end. 

But with mastery, this risk disappears. Students know where they are in terms of their learning at any given point, allowing them to make steadier progress over time and not overload themselves with new information. 

So there you have it: some of the reasons why teachers should focus on mastery, not the curriculum. 

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