On Teaching for Mastery and Teaching for Performance; On Academics and Autonomy-Supportive Teaching

David Streight (February 2020)

Teaching for mastery is the kind of classroom experience where an educator engages students to lock onto subject matter, to grapple with it, to dig into it until they come out the other side satisfied that they now “own” the material. If a student should ask “How do we do that?,” the teacher’s answer is an autonomy-supportive “Well, let’s look at some ways, and you’ll pick the one that seems best for you to start with.” With teaching for mastery the student learns to sit in the driver’s seat; no fair playing co-pilot. The good mastery teacher, on the other hand, is a willing and accomplished co-pilot, but refuses to take over the controls.

Performance-oriented teachers still want their students to master material, but students in such classrooms often end up seeing the goal as racking up grades or points more clearly than mastering material. When grades are the focus, the temptation is to do what’s necessary to reach the desired grade, whether mastery has been attained or not. The analogy in sports is the mastery-oriented coach who want every single player, every single time, to reach a “personal best” versus the performance-oriented coach who wants a win, every single time. All coaches want personal bests; all want wins, also. But which message does the student get—”Win, win, win! (no matter what it takes!),” or “Improve, beat yesterday’s record, get better (no matter how hard you have to work!).” Teachers and coaches may see themselves trying to straddle both performance and mastery, but the answer lies in how students perceive their messages.
My ideal “teacher for mastery” was Elizabeth Monroe Drews, whom I watched attempt to make a meaningful connection with every student in her class. She worked first on Self-Determination Theory’s “relatedness,” though I know she had never heard the term. She worked to know individual student strengths and interests, to the best of her ability, in the time that was available. She then worked to expand those strengths and interests, to get students to push their limits (toward new “personal bests”), to go more deeply. In my case it was “Oh, you’re interested in prosocial growth? have you read the early thoughts that Abraham Maslow had on social creativity? Oh, and what about Sorokin, have you heard of him? You should really look at his Ways and Power of Love! If you get a chance to read it, let me know, I’d love to hear what you think.” I have no idea what grade I got in her class, but I do know that I didn’t finish my “reading list” for several months after grades were turned in.
I didn’t know what Self-Determination Theory was at the time, either, but I do know that this was autonomy-supportive teaching at its best. I didn’t have to read Maslow. Who ever heard of Sorokin? I know she cared whether I checked him out, but I also know that she did not care to push me into checking him out. I have Sorokin books on my shelf even today that Elizabeth Monroe Drews probably never read, and maybe never heard of. But I had to know why she was so interested in my discovering what he had to do with love.