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A Day in the Life: Navigating the Pathways of Mastery Learning

As the sun peeks into the panes, casting its warm glow through her windows, Danelle Conner rises with a sense of purpose that has become the driving heartbeat of her storied career as an educator.

To Danelle, some twenty years ago feels just like yesterday. But it has been two very busy decades since she was an emerging first grade teacher in a genuinely challenged charter school environment in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

She was a novice then, still discovering the utility of getting to know her young students and their needs with the clarity, precision, and intimacy of a brain surgeon with an extraordinary bedside manner.

“It’s the little acts of concentrated attention and focused empathy that make all the difference.”

Prior Knowledge

Emotional intelligence was a shared value in Ms. Conner’s classroom. Children would rise from their desks and greet their teacher with a great, big hug. Their teacher would reciprocate, and subsequently kneel aside each of their desks for several minutes at a time during their independent learning sessions. This was Danelle leading by action, kneeling to reduce significantly not only the physical separation between her and her learners, but also any social, emotional, or intellectual distance.

In that learning environment, everyone was a peer. Those early years taught Danelle how to engage her young students as counterparts. They were all together shipmates; their classroom a sturdy vessel that ported them collectively on countless adventures of learning discovery. Diminutive though they were, Danelle never mistook her students for Lilliputians. Even when their developmental maturity might betray them into acting out with meanness and nastiness, Danelle always regarded her learners as full-sized people. They were human beings consistently worthy of experiencing dignity, agency, and opportunity.

“I miss those days sometimes.”

Today, Danelle is embarking on a different journey of discovery. Her shipmates are not first-graders now, but fully-grown global education development professionals. To Danelle’s great relief and thanksgiving, these colleagues act no more like Lilliputians than your average early childhood learner. This present voyage is still focused on the little people, but the scope of her ambition has grown dramatically. Danelle desires to bring dignity, agency, and opportunity to all children in classrooms across the many low- and lower-middle-income countries of the world.

“I want children in places that I have never visited to discover, nurture, and actualize their Mastery Learner Identity.”

That phrase – Mastery Learner Identity – encapsulates the mission and work of the Age of Learning Foundation. We believe that the solution to the persistent global learning crisis is to help children discover how to master what they learn. 

Curious, confident, capable, and creative children can never be learning poor. Their self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-actualization – all forged intrinsically through their mastery learning journeys, and all validated extrinsically through the expanding and reinforcing support of their fully engaged educators and families – will keep them on a lifelong adventure of meaningful and effectual learning.

Productive Struggle

This morning, with a glass of milk in hand and a program development roadmap etched in her mind, Danelle embarks on another day of navigating opportunities and challenges in pursuit of mastery learning excellence.

As she enters her office, Danelle takes a moment to reflect on the journey ahead, one eye on the horizon, the other on the terrain immediately beneath her feet. 

“What do we need to achieve today to help beat back the global learning crisis and fundamentally improve learning for many more children?”

Danelle is used to writing lesson plans and finds the process of creating programmatic strategic plans not much different. Today, in her morning meeting, she brings that central question about ending learning poverty to the dynamic Age of Learning Foundation academic team that she now leads. Zoom is their daily sandbox, especially given how spread out they are geographically, with some in Central America, others in Africa, and Danelle in her cozy attic office in Pittsburgh.  

The team’s enthusiasm is palpable, a testament to their shared belief in the transformative power of mastery learning. As they brainstorm richly on their lead measures and wildly important goals for execution, Danelle’s mind dances with opportunities – a chance here to pilot new pedagogical approaches, there to engage local educators in shaping a fledgling program, and there elsewhere to inspire a generation of students who are growing to understand and explore the thrilling joy of learning.

Small Group Activities

Over a working lunch, Danelle engages in conversations that illuminate the heart of her work. A Costa Rican colleague shares a story of a teacher who recently embraced mastery learning and progressively watched her students grow in confidence as they began to grasp new concepts and build new skills. Testimonials like these fuel Danelle’s dedication, reminding her that every challenge overcome and opportunity seized is contributing to a brighter future for the young minds that she and her team have the privilege to serve.

Afternoon meetings bring Danelle face-to-face with partners, government officials, nonprofit leaders, educators, and school representatives. Collaboration is the cornerstone of their co-creative journey. As ideas flow, the unity of spirit that Danelle observes provides reflections of the similarly powerful think-pair-share moments which she and her students enjoyed in her first-grade classrooms in Pennsylvania. Each voice was afforded space to contribute a unique perspective, thereby enriching the human-centered design, delivery, and destination of their collective critical thinking. Alignment with contextual priorities and laser-focus on individual needs has become the routine focus in everything that Danelle sets her mind to accomplish.

Exit Tickets

As the day winds down and the sun begins to set across Pittsburgh, an ebbing, casting, twilight glow waves its way across her windows. Danelle smiles as her thoughts linger on the global mastery learning roadmap that she is striving to develop. The process is a unique learning pathway for all involved. One that is both exhilarating and quite demanding. Still, each step in the right direction validates Danelle’s resolve. It confirms that she made an honorable choice when she left classrooms in Pennsylvania in support of learners across the world. After all, Danelle is now part of a movement that is audaciously attempting to rewrite the broken narrative of global education.

She cannot kneel at the desk of every learner that the Age of Learning Foundation seeks to serve. But Danelle’s heart genuflects at the idea that, someday, there will be no social, emotional, or intellectual distance between children in Pittsburgh and children across Africa, Central America, South Asia, and the Middle East. 

They will all discover, nurture, and live out their Mastery Learner Identity. They will all navigate to adulthood as the full-sized people they already are inside. They will all give and all receive, to and from one another, the dignity, agency, and opportunity they deserve to experience and enjoy.

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Learning poverty is preventing children from learning reading and math, and life skills in Africa, Central America, South Asia, and the Middle East. But you can change that.