In textbook theory, mastery-based learning is a model where learners first need to demonstrate a deep level of understanding of a subject before they can progress onto another topic. According to our conception of teaching, however, it is not only about the duties of the learner, but rather about the relationship between teacher and learner. Mastery-based learning is about formulating a mutual understanding that the focus is not on imparting knowledge, but on understanding and applying the course content. The goal of mastery-based learning is therefore rather a philosophic than an instructional approach. We do not strive for (short-term) storage of information, but we care about the acquisition of wisdom.
If that is our aspiration, we need to see learning as an iterative process. Instead of practicing things perfectly, we should try them out again and again, conduct experiments, get feedback from different places, reflect on our mistakes, and keep improving until we achieve mastery. But this requires teachers and systems that do want to do just that – despite the fact that this is much more strenuous than standardized proficiency tests. Only then, learning is about ensuring that things can be applied outside the classroom in a variety of contexts. And this is precisely our responsibility as teachers. Mastery-based learning is just another way of saying ‘I do care if you understand what I tried to teach you.”