Mastery-based Education

You know, if I had suggested this maybe 10 years back, I would incur the wrath of every adult I met. The notion of ‘play’ is in stark contrast to the notion of ‘school’. It was always “finish your schoolwork, then you get to play”, never an “and”. Play was fun, inspiring, energetic; Schoolwork was boring, monotonous, soul-draining.

But ‘play’ and ‘school’ have a lot in common:

  • In both, there was some sort of progress. In one, you level up, in the other, you go into a different grade.
  • Both are governed by rules.

But here’s where they differ from each other:

  • Students study around a fixed curriculum, whereas games oftentimes allow players the autonomy to decide on their next action.
  • Students are grouped by age, whereas experience points systems in games rank players by mastery levels.




Having a fixed curriculum isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The idea of having a fixed curriculum came about with the very first schools using the concept of education to produce their idea of “morally enlightened and cultivated generalists”3. Greece featured the concept of the Quadrivium, ‘scientific’ arts of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, and the Trivium, arts of the ‘humanities’ – grammar, logic, and rhetoric) would later form the basis for the Western Liberal Arts education. Indian teaching was based on Veda, and students were taught hymns, incantations, reasoning, and some basic knowledge.

In the above cases, a fixed curriculum meant that there was a which could be refined with every iteration, and it provided learners with the basics that would groom them to be generalists.

Yet, even if we wanted to pursue such an ideal, we could always leave room for the more curious learners to explore on their own. Modern Universities provide such an example: While certain modules formed a core curriculum, students are still encouraged to take on elective modules for breadth exploration, as well as depth modules to better go into a subject (possibly leading to a major).

Naturally, if we were thinking on building on that, the next thing to do would be to introduce more modules, that would theoretically give the students more options to decide what they wish to study.

I thought about it a while, and realised it was similar to a game concept.

The module system is essentially a skill tree.

Technology tree from Sid Meier’s Civilization 5

For those unacquainted to the term, a skill tree is a game system where characters grow progressively stronger as they unlock skills down the skill tree. A player might first unlock Small Fireball, then Large Fireball, before being able to unleash the TERRIFYING METEOR OF DOOM. Sometimes, if the game allows for it, the player may also be able to combine two separate skills to produce something different, such as combining the Large Fireball and Basic Swordsmanship to unlock the FIRE SWORD OF DOOM.

It’s not hard to see how this can be applied to knowledge – the linear system of the current model builds on knowledge obtained in previous grades. Calculus-based Mechanics (FIRE SWORD OF DOOM), for instance, requires the student to have obtained basic understanding in both Calculus (Large Fireball) and Mechanics (Basic Swordsmanship) before new concepts can be introduced. It’s a concept that has always made sense – without the pre-requisite knowledge, learning may not proceed at an optimal pace. Examining the curriculum and understanding where each piece of knowledge or skill builds on the other, and mapping it out, before implementation, thus becomes a high priority for good Educators to do. Khan Academy provides an excellent example of this point.

Khan Academy’s Knowledge Map (Mathematics)

To show that it can be further expended onto other subjects, I’ve created a simple one for Math/Physics, following the curriculum set out by the International Physics Olympiad Committee.

Untitled Diagram (3) (1) (1) (1) (1)
View full image here

While comparatively plain, this “knowledge tree” goes one step further to highlight the dependencies of one subject upon the other. If you’ve taken the time to read the knowledge map in detail, you will also notice that certain topics we’ve taken for granted to be relatively difficult (e.g. special relativity) actually only has relatively few pre-requisites, with the only issue being that we normally reserve it for higher levels as these topics tend to betray conventional thinking.

Then again, if you study it early enough, you probably won’t fall for the trap of conventional thinking.

But I digress.

This note is solely for purposes of my ego – I spent too much time editing, formatting, and aligning everything to reduce the picture to a one-paragraph statement. While doing up this knowledge map, I faced a dilemma: Did I want the arrows to represent pre-requisite, or good-to-know? In sciences where two different topics could appear highly related but knowledge of one is technically not required for the other,  should I draw a link between them on the skill tree? I chose to focus on the minimum pre-requisites, though other people may have different approaches.

If you are ever free, you could try doing up one of these for yourself. It doesn’t have to be limited to academic knowledge; maybe a knowledge tree for your hobby or craft could also work! Doing one made me really reflect on how much I took my learning and knowledge for granted, and forced me to examine the relationships between my knowledge.


It is my belief that a large scale-project to map out knowledge up to a bachelor’s level would be beneficial to society, for the following reasons:

  1. A common challenge for individuals wishing to delve into unfamiliar topics is not knowing where to start. In such scenarios, having the knowledge map would provide them a trodden path into a clear route of approach.
  2. Individuals finding themselves weaker than expected at a certain topic may trace back through the knowledge map to reinforce their basics before re-tackling the current topic of study.

The successful creation of such a map would also lead us to the second point…



Having a structure enables us to know how far we have progressed along that structure. With the conventional set-up, we understood that we were classified into levels, and progress through these levels were largely time-based. With a structure that places skills in its core, progress through the structure will now be mastery-based.

From a purely academic perspective there are reasons to support such a switch. Being in a mastery-based system means that lessons will naturally be geared towards the levels of the students, rather than being 1) too fast for the students, where the students will need to take supplementary lessons in order to understand content, or 2) too slow for the students, which results in disengagement.

Furthermore, with such a system in place, we find ourselves being more open to other kinds of learning. We ask ourselves: What of the student who spends his weekends building rockets? What of the student who spends her weekends exploring nature and collecting bugs? What of the student who reads 3 books every weekends? Or the student who has learnt to play the drums and guitar by himself? In the conventional setting none of their efforts will be recognised. But if demonstration of mastery is our intent, then we need to come up with a way to acknowledge all of these.

Here, we would like to create as system where these students will be recognised and encouraged. For a student to be considered to have completed certain skills (e.g. Calculus), the student would have to have either:

  1. Opt to, and pass, an examination and other required assessments which tests for the competencies required in a skill.
  2. Earn enough experience points via assignments, readings, extracurricular work to unlock the examination for unlimited tries.

Each skill will be graded upon a pass/fail basis. In this manner, we acknowledge those who have the ability to accelerate through skills, yet provide a comfortable alternative path for those who need time to ease in or those who are already engaged in work outside school curriculum.

A keen reader might ask – Examinations and other required assessments? Isn’t this just a repackaged form of the current system?

It would be, if we were referring to the same things when talking about examinations. What I’m proposing, however, are examinations in the form of open questions. For example, a calculus examination could be in the form of the Cat-Dog Problem7. Physics examinations can be based on the International Young Physicists’ Tournament8. The guiding principles for the examinations are to be long, open problems, with no clear solutions easily available online. Not only will this force the students to apply the concepts in a different way, but could also be seen as a better indicator of how well skills and tools, rather than standardised approaches to standardised questions, have been imparted on to the student.

Required assessments are just another term that has over time gained much negative stigmatisation. While we think that it is alright for the student to pursue his or her own academic interests, we would like to develop a few basic competencies to help the student in later life. These would be skills such as presentation, academic paper writing, report writing, seminars, and whatnot, and they are part of the grading component for the student o be considered to have attained mastery over a certain subject.

A list of competencies are as follows:

  1. Lecture Presentation skills
  2. Scientific Report Writing
  3. Academic Paper writing
  4. Poster Presentation skills

Objections might be raised, for example, for a student who is intensely passionate about Biochemistry, but is unable to give a presentation to save a life. Would it be unfair to discredit the student? Our answer would be yes. Presentations are determined as one of the key competencies that the student would have to develop, and we could probably agree that a student would have an easier time giving presentations on a topic he or she is passionate about rather than cramming it into a presentation 101 module.


Putting it together

Now for the details – how I would imagine a school that revolved around this concept to be:


Each student be issued a tablet for purposes of tracking his or her own progress on the various Skill Trees.

The purposes for this is self-explanatory.

But the reasons for issuing tablets also are to provide educational resources, tapping potentially upon the vast world of MOOCs, worksheets, and notes. The usefulness of good worksheets and notes can not be understated – they consolidate learning, and forces the student to apply what they learned. 

Issuing a tablet for tracking purposes also provides a convenient method of tracking (on the part of the school) of the progress and extracurriculars that each student has done, providing a portfolio which can be shown to future institutions or organisations the result of all the practical work which has been done by the student, as a greater testament to the student’s abilities compared to conventional transcripts.

That emphasis be placed in creating a well-equipped library, as well as a Printing room. Journal access might be obtained for every student, if necessary.

The central idea is to create the environment for exploration and autonomy.

That we move away from the standard classroom structure, where a fixed group of students sitting a fixed classroom waiting for a fixed set of teachers to come in at a fixed set of timings, into one where teachers and other faculty members could be stationed at different rooms, and the students tap on their knowledge as necessary.

I think this is a natural result of the mastery-based education we are trying to achieve. Providing students the autonomy in a sense would mean shifting the initiative to the students to seek out the knowledge by themselves. A classroom setting fails, because everyone is progressing at an individual pace, and the alternative to the proposal would be micromanaging where each student goes, which is a waste of resources.

Little formal teaching, if any at all, will be conducted on knowledge, but the teacher may call students up for consultations if he/she finds that the students are lacking in various skills.

This will be implemented as a backup, to ensure that students have the necessary foundation while they explore the various subjects, rather than allowing all of them to simply touch-and-go.

Guidance counsellors will be made widely accessible in the school, to point potentially confused/lost students in a direction.

A potential problem I foresee is that students might have too much autonomy that they are not sure what to do next (see the Paradox of Choice). In such a case, it would be good to have people dedicated solely to helping students learn and find out more about what they might want to discover.

Teachers in such a system are highly encouraged not just to stick to their fields but work with other teachers of a related field to see where they might collaborate and/or update the skill tree.

I see the conventional Math/Physics, Chemistry/Biology/Physics collaborations, but even Linguistics/Abstract Algebra collaborations as well. Distill your knowledge, and realise that the more you learn, the more connections there are to what has been learnt than you would have expected.



As a side point, as this system allows for the tracking of extracurricular activities undertaken by the student, we would better prime students for future success, as we are able to demonstrate to future employers that our students not just have the knowledge, but have placed these knowledge to practical applications.

I foresee that the best levels to begin implementing such a system is in the high school years. Primary/elementary school should be kept to build up the necessary foundation to allow for further exploration (think about how music is taught – a foundation is built up in the budding musician, and all the conventional techniques and interpretation are taught to him/her before he/she is deemed at a stage advanced enough to begin exploration on his/her own), and Tertiary levels kept for expanding the depth in the chosen path.

Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQs):

This sounds interesting! However, wouldn’t there be a great amount of resources dedicated to sustaining such a system?

Allow me to address this concern on various fronts. Firstly, it is easy to see that for the most part, tasks such as content generation (in the form of notes, or questions) is primarily a one-time effort (though not discounting iterative processes to constantly update and renew the material), and a leaf could be taken out of current textbooks or notes available online.

However, I do acknowledge that huge amounts of resources have to be dedicated elsewhere. For example, this system encourages learning in small groups or individually (since the pace can then be better controlled by the group or individuals), so we may need more educators to meet demand, for example. If there are any niche fields, we can also see that the faculty in charge of the niche fields will be relatively stretched. Let me allay these concerns by noting that firstly, these resources will definitely be more efficiently used. Instead of having to lecture whole classes who are absorbing at different paces, the teacher now only has to addresses certain points where the student is stuck.

Furthermore, since this is targeted to be a high school, the content knowledge should be relatively common amongst educators.

Could there be a possibility where a student tries to breeze by with the minimum amount of effort?

It is definitely possible. The question, then, is what next for the students? Each school will see its share of hard-workers, and others who might prioritise other activities, and it may be impractical to expect that every student is so highly motivated that he or she is driven to excellence.

The better question to ask, therefore, would be “Could there be a situation where a student who’s willing to put in the effort gets neglected?”

The answer would then be a definitive no. The reason is simple. In traditional classrooms it was possible for a student to be neglected primarily because he or she is slower than the pace of the class, and the classroom was one that revolved around the teacher (i.e. the teacher controls the pace, the materials, and everything). In a system centred around the student, however, the only neglect that can be given is the student’s own neglect of him/herself. By ensuring that all the resources needed are readily available, and where teachers and guidance counsellors are always present to guide the student if need be, we create an environment where the student will never fail if he or she is willing to put in the effort.

Won’t it be very likely a student comes out of your system relatively imbalanced in terms of learning?

Imbalanced in what sense? If we are talking about imbalanced in terms of subject matter knowledge, wouldn’t we agree that most students of the current system are imbalanced? We already know that students have a preferred subject that they put in more effort in , and a least favourite subject they would rather work than do.

Using the word “imbalance” implies, at least implicitly, that balance is something to work towards. Educators all have their on philosophies on education, my proposal is no different from just being yet another variant. Furthermore, if you think that general education works, look at the political discourse in the US, the state of geographical knowledge, or even their math abilities.




As proof of how serious I was going ahead with this idea, I actually spoke to a trainee teacher and asked her about her opinions on this.

She was vehemently against it.

She insightfully pointed out that schools were more than institutions for passing down knowledge, but were also places where the individual developed through social interactions, and the character gets trained.

The age-old (ha) tradition of placing people into groups by their age was also due to Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Pyschosocial Development which states that at different age groups, individuals face different crises, and are trying reconcile with the virtues. Disrupting this establishment could cause chaos and ill-development in the students.

Anecdotally, she also pointed out that there is a very big difference in maturity between students who are 12 and students who are 14.

I acknowledge these concerns, and think that they are valid, but nevertheless I am still curious about the results of such an educational system. A lot of these theories, while developed, are developed based on observations rather than scientific experimentation per se. Without actually implementing this concept in place, all that we have is purely speculation on our part.



Moving Ahead

This blogpost was birthed out of my daydreaming, but it is something that has been gestating in my thoughts for a while. Educational reforms and experimentation are huge undertakings, and I predict that there might be great public backlash for the most part. If we were to put in place radical systems, there is also the question of finding brave enough parents who would be willing to let their child try it out. In such a case, there needs to be a backup in place (e.g. standardised testing) so that parents may rest at ease, that their children will still have an alternative plan in case the system doesn’t work out in their favour.

We should, however, acknowledge that the methods of teaching has hardly changed since ancient Greece, and must learn to continually question the reason behind so. After all, it is often said that Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world, and if we aren’t actively seeking to hone and polish this weapon to face modern challenges, then we aren’t placing ourselves in the best possible scenario to advance as humankind.



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