Master of mastery; this 73-year-old scholar in a business suit would gladly ruin American education

Master of mastery; this 73-year-old scholar in a business suit would gladly ruin American education – Benjamin S. Bloom

Paul Chance




What are you working on now?” a friend

asked. “An article on Benjamin Bloom,” I replied. “Ah,” she said, “the man who ruined American education.”

The man who ruined American education? Could we be talking about the same person? Could she mean the Benjamin S. Bloom who is Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Education at the University of Chicago and professor of education at Northwestern University; one of the founders of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement; the educator whose name is linked to some of the most popular educational buzzwords, including time-on-task, educational objectives and mastery learning? Could she be talking about that Benjamin Bloom?

The reason for my friend’s comment is that much of the current back-to-basics movement in education is a revolt against the kinds of changes that Bloom and like-minded people have tried to bring about. Bloom thinks, for example, that there is too much drill, too much rote Learning, too little active participation by students, too much emphasis on lower-level “basic” skills, too much attention to “minimum” standards, too much competition and, most of all, too much failure in today’s schools. He believes that the current educational system is structurally flawed and should be thoroughly rehabilitated, like an old house that is in danger of collapsing and killing its occupants. In this sense, Bloom would gladly plead guilty to having tried to “ruin” American education.

Bloom does not look the part of an educational Karl Marx. If he were to show up at central casting, he would be pegged as Mr. Anyman, the butcher, the baker, the undertaker. But a man who could be accused of trying to tear down our nation’s school system? Never.

But rebels rarely look the part; that’s their disguise. If they looked like Jack Palance, we would be on guard. They look like Tevye, the harmless milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. So when you meet Benjamin Bloom and you see this 73-year-old scholar in a business suit sitting across a table talking about education in soft, loving tones. It is easy to miss the fact that he is a kind of quiet rebel. His antiestablishment views probably had their origin in his early days at the University of Chicago, where he has spent nearly all his professional life. After taking bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pennsylvania State University, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in education at Chicago in 1942. He stayed on to become assistant to the University Examiner and later filled the position of Examiner.

It was the responsibility of the University Examiner to make up and administer the comprehensive examinations taken by all of the university’s undergraduates. In that post Bloom became part of a movement to shift the school’s emphasis from teaching facts to teaching students how to use knowledge in solving problems.

Bloom soon discovered that some students were very poor problem-solvers and, with research assistant Lois Broder, undertook a study to determine why. They gave students problems like those on the comprehensive exams and had them work on them aloud. What the researchers learned was that the successful problem-solvers attacked problems in a systematic and analytical way, while the poor problem-solvers simply tried to recall a memorized answer. Bloom characterized the two approaches as active and passive. For instance, Bloom and Broder asked college students to answer this problem aloud: “Give the reasons which would have influenced a typical Virginia tobacco farmer to support the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, and the reasons which would have influenced him to oppose the ratification.”

A good problem-solver, Ralph, gave an answer that went in part, like this: “Well, what rights did the Constitution give him? Well. . . from the standpoint of money, which one would be more to his advantage? Well, prior to the Revolutionary War, he would have to pay taxes to England. . . . I think he would approve of it for patriotic reasons, and from the standpoint of money he wouldn’t have to ship his tobacco to England. . . . he wouldn’t have to pay the taxes.”

A weaker problem-solver, George, gave an answer that went like this: “. . . Well, uh, to tell the truth I never had anything on [that) and at present I couldn’t think of any.”

Bloom and Broder concluded, George probably has almost as much

real knowledge about the Virginia tobacco farmer as Ralph. However, Ralph keeps working with what is given unless he is able to give some semblance of a solution.”

Besides identifying differences between successful and unsuccessful problem-solvers, Bloom and Broder found that they were able to teach weak problem-solvers the skills of their more successful classmates.

The Bloom and Broder study, published in 1950, became a classic of educational research. It demonstrated that “higher-level skills,” skills that many psychologists and educators took to be largely inherited, could be taught. And it suggested that the wide variability in student achievement commonly seen in classrooms might not be inevitable, that the gap between the top and bottom of a given class might be substantially narrowed.

Our present educational system rests on the assumption that wide variability in achievement is largely the result of wide variability in innate learning ability. Most of us probably find little to quarrel with in this commonsense assumption. A recent survey revealed, for instance, that most mothers in the United States believe that the principal ingredient in school success is the inborn talent of the youngster. Wide variability in student achievement is therefore natural and inevitable. Who can argue with that?

Bloom can. The work he and his colleagues have done over the past 40 years has convinced him that much of the variability seen in student performance is neither natural nor inevitable but the product of our educational system. Bloom admits that there are innate differences in learning ability, but he believes that these differences are much smaller than most of us imagine and do not account for the wide differences in student achievement. What might be called Bloom’s dictum states: What one student can learn, nearly all students can learn.

Bloom points to studies of tutoring to support his view. He and his doctoral students have conducted studies in which tutored students are compared with those taught under conventional group instruction. They have found that the average tutored student learns more than do 98 percent of students taught in regular classes. They also found that 90 percent of the tutored students attained levels reached by only the top 20 percent of those in regular classes.

Tutoring shows that the vast majority of students are capable of doing outstanding work. But Bloom doesn’t believe that tutoring is a practical approach to instruction: “We simply can’t afford a student-to-teacher ratio of 1 to 1 or even 3 to l.” Over the past 25 years, Bloom and his colleagues have worked to develop a system of group instruction that would approximate the effects of tutoring. The system is called mastery learning.

In mastery learning the teacher instructs the class in more or less the usual way, although Bloom likes teachers to involve the students more actively and reinforce their contributions more frequently. At the conclusion of an instructional unit (about every two weeks), the teachere gives a “formative test” to determine the need for “corrective instruction.” The test is not used for grading but lets the teacher know what the students haven’t yet learned.

The teacher studies the test results to identify common errors-points most students didn’t get from the lesson. This material is then retaught, perhaps in a different way, to try to get the ideas across.

After this, the students work in groups of two or three for 20 to 30 minutes. The purpose of this group work is for the students to help one another on points they had missed on the formative test. The student who doesn’t understand the procedure for dividing fractions asks classmates for help. If no one in the group is able to provide the answer, they call on the teacher. But usually, Bloom says, the groups are able to work on their own.

Some students need help beyond group work and may be assigned workbook exercises, text reading, the viewing of a videotape or some other activity. It usually takes these students no more than an hour or two a week to complete the extra work necessary to catch up.

The final step in the mastery approach is the “evaluative test.” This test is similar but not identical to the formative test; it “counts” toward the student’s grade. Grading is not, however, on the curve. Students’ grades reflect the extent to which they mastered the unit, not their class rank. This means that every student can earn an A.

Not every student does earn an A, but studies have consistently shown that mastery students learn more than those taught in the conventional manner. In fact, the average mastery learning student does better than about 85 percent of students taught in the traditional way. And 70 percent of mastery students attain levels reached by only the top 20 percent of students in regular classrooms.

Many people would be content with these results, but Bloom is determined to push the limits further. For instance, one reason students differ in achievement is past learning. What a student knows at the beginning of a lesson affects what the student gets out of that lesson. Someone with a good grasp of short division is likely to follow a lesson on long division; a student who is confused about short division will simply become more confused. Those who differ at the outset in what Bloom calls the “prerequisites for learning” will be even further apart at the end of the lesson.

But, Bloom asks, what would happen if all students started the lesson on an equal footing? One of Bloom’s students, Fernando Leyton, performed an experiment to answer this question. Students in a second-year algebra class took a test at the beginning of the school year to determine what they recalled from the first-year course. Then, using the corrective instruction method of mastery learning, the teacher taught the students the specific skills they lacked. After this, the teacher taught the first unit using the mastery learning approach. The students in this class did far better on a test of that unit than did students in a comparable class who had merely had a general review of first-year algebra and were taught in the ordinary way. Leyton obtained similar results in a study of second-year French students.

The benefits of prerequisite training, when combined with mastery Learning, multiply over a period of weeks. One of Leyton’s experimental classes continued using mastery learning for about three months. The average student in this class scored higher than did 95 percent of those in a regular class on the same material.

Impressive as these results are (they nearly match the effects of tutoring), Bloom is not satisfied. He notes that variability in student achievement is not due solely to what takes place in school. Parents who encourage their children to do well in school, who let them know that school learning is important, who show by their own behavior that they value learning, who help with homework, who provide tutors when their own efforts are inadequate-such parents have children who enjoy more success in school. It is not, Bloom emphasizes, demographic characteristics such as parent income, occupation and educational level that need to be changed but parental behavior. There is little we can do to change the demographic features of the parents of students who do not do well, but we can help parents to change their behavior in ways that will help their children in school. We can and, Bloom insists, we should.

Although Bloom is careful about how he deals with this touchy issue, he does advocate having educators work with parents. And he believes that parental training should begin before children start school. “The most rapid period of learning is the period that ends at about the time the student begins first grade. Some parents make good use of this time, but others don’t. The result is that some students are far ahead of others before the school bell rings.” Programs such as Head Start that try to bring the disadvantaged student up to par are fine, Bloom believes, but training the parents to do the job right in the first place would be even better.

Bloom believes that with parental training, prerequisite instruction and mastery learning, almost all students can master the content of their courses. But, true to his rebel nature, Bloom admits that even this would leave him dissatisfied.

“Having an effective method of instruction is only half the battle,” he says. “Once you know how to teach well you have to ask the question, ‘What is worth learning well?’ ” Many years ago Bloom and his colleagues produced two volumes aimed at classifying the kinds of things students are asked to learn. The first volume of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives identifies academic objectives that range from lower-level skills, such as the ability to recall and understand facts, to higher-level skills, such as the ability to synthesize and evaluate facts.

Traditional education, Bloom complains, has always devoted itself almost exclusively to lower-level goals. “Studies have shown,” he notes, “that over 95 percent of the items on teacher-made tests require nothing more than the recollection of facts.” It is no wonder, Bloom observes, that so many of the bright college students he and Broder studied years ago could not solve problems. “If we do not teach higher-level skills such as problem solving,” says Bloom, “we cannot reasonably expect students to master them.”

The second volume of the Taxonomy recognizes that students learn much more in school than academic subjects. Much of what they learn involves interests, attitudes values and social skills. Bloom believes that the most important learning that takes place in school may have to do with feelings. Students who do well on a task feel good about the task, the school, the teacher and themselves. In discovering that they are good students, they learn that they have value in the eyes of teachers, parents and even other students. Students who do poorly on a task feel unhappy about the task and everything associated with it, including themselves. Bad students learn that they are bad people.

Teachers inevitably convey these judgments; they cannot do otherwise in a system that focuses on class rank instead of mastery of course content. “It’s hard to think of any place in our society that is as preoccupied as the schools with comparing people with one another,” Bloom observes. He notes, for example, that employees are rarely ranked from highest to lowest, from best to worst. “Yet that is exactly what is done every day in our schools.”

Bloom believes that traditional education not only undermines the self-esteem of students who do poorly, it “infects” these students with emotional problems. Bloom emphasizes that this outcome is not a rare event attributable to an occasional insensitive teacher. Rather, it is the inevitable result of a system of education that assumes that large numbers of students must fail or just get by.

Why do our schools persist in walking the same old path? The answer is rooted in our history. Our educational system had its origin in the agricultural age, a time when society had little need of large numbers of well-educated citizens. With industrialization came the need for widespread literacy, but only those who would govern, run businesses or follow professions needed more than a smattering of education. What did a farmer or textile worker need to know of Shakespeare, Newton, or Locke? So, to a large extent the purpose of public schooling was to identify those students who would go on to become leaders. Because education was as much concerned with selection as with instruction, a system that encouraged competition and left many students behind made some sense.

But our society has changed. We now face a world in which farm- ing and manufacturing, long our major employers, play minor roles. As Alvin Toffler has shown in The Third Wave, increasing numbers of people are employed at tasks that involve the manipulation of information more than physical labor. And many of these workers can expect to return to school for retraining repeatedly during their careers. “We need large numbers of people with high-level skills who like to learn,” says Bloom, “and we’re not going to get them with an educational system designed to ensure that most students fail.” The solution, he suggests, is to replace our antiquated educational system with one that produces very few failures.

His efforts to do just that have led some people to suggest that he is a woolly-headed professor whose rebellious ideas would ruin our schools, if they haven’t already. But if Bloom is right, his brand of education would produce results far superior to those of the traditional system. The majority of students would leave our schools knowing much more than students do today. And feeling better about themselves.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group