New View EDU Episode 27: Developing Mastery in Approaches to Education

Available October 25

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As the world continues to rapidly evolve, so do the skills students need to be successful in the future. Educational models that revolve around seat time, content memorization, and age-based pacing are starting to fade into the past. But what should replace them? One idea that’s gaining traction is the concept of mastery. On this episode of New View EDU, Julia Griffin joins host Tim Fish to share how she and a team of innovative educators have launched the Mastery School at Hawken—an alternative learning experience within a well-established independent high school.

Julia GriffinDescribing the concept of a mastery-based education, Julia reflects on the purpose of education as achieving the “highest goal” of maximizing the individual growth of every student. Traditional high school models, she argues, are organized more for efficiency, conformity, and deference to the needs of the adults in the building. Designing a fully mastery-based system of education instead requires creating space to center the needs of each student. 

In order to achieve that vision, the Mastery School designs curriculum and experiences around four foundational goals: critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication, and cultivation of self. Students work toward those goals primarily through what Julia calls “macros,” or real-world projects that allow them to learn new material while applying what they know to a practical assignment. Because the macros are developed in partnership with community organizations, and students are assigned to fill real needs within those organizations, Julia points out that the motivation to learn and grow is greater. Bringing the learning from the theoretical to the immediate adds a sense of urgency and agency that helps students feel invested in their outcomes.

But how can schools pivot from traditional learning to mastery-based systems, when doing so requires such a monumental shift in approach? Crucially, Julia shares, the Mastery School was able to create its curriculum and model through a decade of prototyping within the Hawken School. A carefully designed series of ongoing experiments with Hawken students, under the direction of the Korda Institute, allowed the team of educators working on the prototype to gain meaningful insights into what worked and what didn’t. That decade of research culminated in the opening of the Mastery School campus as an extension of Hawken, where the staff and students continue to evaluate and improve the model in real time.

Not every school can achieve that kind of deep research, nor can every school devote resources to supporting a second experimental school without disruption to the tried-and-true model. But Julia encourages educators who want to explore mastery-based learning to start incrementally and to take advantage of existing professional development resources to implement change in their own classrooms. Importantly, she says, the mindset for any mastery learning experiment should be centered around problem-solving. Approaching teaching and learning from a problem-solving perspective, Julia says, can make mastery-based approaches accessible to any educator, any student, and any grade level.

Fundamentally, mastery-based education hinges upon the belief that students are capable of much more than we traditionally believe them to be, and the contributions they can make to their own learning—and to the world around them—surpass what is asked of them in traditional educational models. The story of how Julia and the team at the Mastery School of Hawken created their school is just one example of how the landscape is changing to bring student agency to the forefront of the way we teach and learn.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Julia explore in this episode include:
  • What is mastery learning, and what are the key components of a school day in a mastery-based system?
  • How does being part of a larger, well-established independent school allow an experimental program like the Mastery School of Hawken to thrive? What are the advantages, and what are the pitfalls?
  • What is the role and posture of a teacher in a setting like the Mastery School? What kind of educator thrives in mastery-based learning?
  • How can educators who are interested in mastery learning, but who are not teaching in mastery-based schools, test this kind of educational experience in their own classrooms?

Episode Highlights

  • “A system organizes itself around the highest goal. And that highest goal, in what I'll call traditional school, is really that everybody learns the same things at about the same time. And as a mastery learning school, what we've taken as our goal, our highest goal, is maximizing the individual growth of every student. And when you take that as your goal, then the systems that you end up building look really different.” (2:48)
  • “What we find is that students, and anyone who's worked with high school students knows this to be true, students know when something is real and when something has been invented by the teacher. They can smell the difference from a mile away.” (8:19)
  • “I'm someone who's been in schools for my whole career. For people who come through schools in their whole career, there really is this phenomenon of the traditional school muscle memory that you have to fight against. Because the rhythms of teaching, if you've been teaching for a while, there are things that you mostly subconsciously have very likely learned how to do, that are kind of wrapped around the traditional paradigm that we were talking about before. And so it really does require radical humility and openness and interest in learning how to do something different.” (15:47)
  • “Because we weren't just expanding and adding a campus, but we were really trying to build a new model of school and wanted to say that, part of what's really challenging there is, if you're building a new model, by implication, whether you say it or not, you think that there's something that could be improved about the old model. And that's actually kind of a little bit of a daring thing to say.” (33:49)
  • “I think that young people are capable of so much more than school tends to give them credit for. They're ready. You know, high school students are ready to be working on things that are real. They're ready to do things and see them actually get implemented and make an impact. And designing a school and figuring out how to build a school that can center that is really hard. And there's a lot that we haven't figured out yet. But that to me is the school that young people deserve.” (43:47)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

About Our Guest

Julia Griffin is the founding director of the Mastery School of Hawken, a new ungraded, project- and problem-based high school attached to a century-old independent school. After helping develop innovative programming at Hawken for more than a decade, Julia was tapped to help build the team to build this new school, which opened in 2020 and will graduate its first class of seniors next spring.   

Julia holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard University in government with a focus on political theory, and a master’s in literature from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.