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Why Consider Mastery Learning?

Academy faculty Terry Yamamoto-Edwards shares insights from her year-long sabbatical living with her son in Spain.

By Terry Yamamoto-Edwards

Last year, during my year-long sabbatical from Punahou, my ninth-grade son, Noah, and I had an incredible opportunity to live in Spain. It was truly transformative to live internationally, and we both gained broader perspectives and life lessons that would not have been learned otherwise. My focus was to research alternative graduation requirements, competency-based learning and progressive models of education. I read books and articles on educational change; visited nontraditional schools across the United States and in Spain; and connected with educators internationally through Global Online Academy professional development courses.

A specific area of my research was on the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a relatively new organization comprised of 225 private and public schools across the United States. (Punahou School is a founding member.) My inspiration for exploring mastery-based learning and alternative graduation requirements stemmed partly from seeing school through the lens of my oldest son, who graduated from Punahou in 2017. Although I’ve been teaching at the School for 29 years, I gained insights watching him go through the Academy. He loved his classes, teachers, clubs, band, his friends and more, and yet, we were both frustrated by the courses and recommendations required by colleges. Although Punahou is a college prep school, we also want to prepare students for life beyond college, helping them develop skills and habits to foster successful careers, engaged citizenship and lifelong learning.

As an educator and as a mother, I have observed the mindset of wanting to “get classes out of the way,” and this doesn’t seem right for genuine learning and engagement. Education is often approached as a checklist of predetermined classes and credits, and in my many years of teaching science, students more often ask what they need to do to get an “A,” than what they need to do to strengthen specific skills.

Meanwhile, during my 10 years as assistant director at the Luke Center for Public Service, I’ve seen students engage in meaningful, community-centered initiatives. The real-world learning, perseverance and leadership they gained were extraordinary, and I often wondered how students could have these genuine, experiential endeavors “count” toward graduation credit. Many schools are already exploring new models that allow students, for example, to show they are a global citizen through outside classroom experiences.

During my time away, I was reminded that we can sometimes be insulated here in Hawai’i, and in our school setting. Prior to my sabbatical, colleagues would ask, “What do colleges think of a new type of transcript? I don’t think they’ll go for that.” It was enlightening to learn that college admissions officers have been dealing with hundreds of types of transcripts for decades. They have been able to understand and honor transcripts from international schools, home-school environments, project-based schools and schools that don’t give letter grades.

I discovered that mastery-based (or competency-based) learning isn’t so much about the transcript, but rather about encompassing changes in teaching and learning driven by 21st-century skills and a changing workplace. Competency-based learning involves articulating specific skills desired in our graduates and asking students to demonstrate mastery of these skills through evidence. It asks students to show how they have grown, with the focus being more on skills, and less on content.

Competency-based learning would be a huge paradigm shift for the Academy and would require clear communication with faculty, parents, students, college counselors and others. It would also require thoughtful implementation of curriculum and new models of assessment, based on research and learning from other schools carrying out similar work.

In my subject area of biology, for instance, teachers have previously determined that it’s important to teach things like evolution, DNA, cells and ecology. But if we move to a competency-based framework, where students are asked to demonstrate critical thinking and collaboration, I would need to ask myself, am I really teaching these things? Just because I have students work in groups doesn’t mean they’re acquiring collaboration skills. Competency-based learning forces teachers to consider how we can develop skill sets in our students, while still ensuring they understand relevant biological concepts.

Today’s global issues, such as climate change and immigration, are complex, and students need to be innovative to generate solutions. They need an understanding of geography, world languages, science, history and more. But students don’t necessarily have the skills to make the connections between subject areas, since for the most part, they are taking separate single-subject courses. Our global economy requires new abilities and thinking skills.

Shifts outside the classroom are also important. Living in Spain, I was struck by the way people approached life. People of all ages stayed out late into the night, walking and even dancing every weekend in the plaza. No one was working on laptops in cafés. My son had no homework in the ninth grade. Time away from school was spent on soccer, family and socializing – not more schoolwork.

This made me think about the race that American students run to get into college, whether it’s SAT prep courses, volunteer activities to put on the transcript or taking multiple AP courses. In the United States, we’ve come to think more homework means more learning. But results from standardized exams (such as the PISA test) that assess application of knowledge and problem-solving don’t support this premise. The United States falls in the mid-range of 70-plus Westernized countries, with little to no improvements in performance over the last 20 years. Being in another country helped me pause and realize that there can be different approaches to school and living.

Terry Yamamoto-Edwards has been teaching science at Punahou since 1990. She continues to teach in the Academy and is also co-director of Punahou’s Mastery Transcript Consortium.

Additional photo caption:
Top: Terry Yamamoto-Edwards and her son, Noah Edwards ’21, spent a year living in Spain, as part of her sabbatical.

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