I’m Gonna Find Out What I Got (Focus on Mastery)

IMS Global CEO Rob AbelRob Abel, Ed.D. | October 2020

"I’m gonna go out tonight, I’m gonna find out what I got." —Bruce Springsteen


We’re now into the 4th quarter of a year that none of us predicted. In recent months, I’ve been writing about IMS’s pivot in late 2019 in seeing a need to go beyond “student success” to a more specific set of success factors that might be at the center as we evolve toward the future of education. We’ve put out there a “straw-person” consisting of three specific agenda items that must be improved to go deeper into “student success.” These are equity, agency, and mastery. 

I suppose nothing highlights how fast things can change in the modern world than a global pandemic. When humans make adjustments during an emergency, some of those adjustments stick. People are losing jobs, and some have predicted that many of those jobs are lost forever. Of course, no one knows how many jobs will be lost or potentially gained as sector activity shifts. What we do know is that workers have to be more agile than ever to keep afloat and build careers. In a 2017 report on human capital trends, Deloitte estimates the average half-life of a learned “skill” is 4.5 years.  

It wasn’t very long ago when mainstream education considered ideas like competency-based education and Open Badges as interesting, but not something to adopt any time soon. As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is undeniable from the growth of interest in these and related topics in IMS (including the last face-to-face meeting we were able to hold this year—the Digital Credentials Summit) that ideas like competencies and digital credentials are now on the cusp of entering the mainstream of education and learning in K-12, HED, and corporate.

From its start, the competency movement in education has reflected new ideas about the “whole learner” and the skills that enable both career and life success. Initially referred to as 21st-century skills more than 20 years ago, we are now seeing detailed frameworks such as those created through the research at the Center for Curriculum Redesign: Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, mindfulness, courage, leadership, and so on. 

It can be challenging enough to assess proficiency and fill gaps in highly objective areas, such as math. How can we do a better job of measuring proficiency in more qualitative skills? Depending on the type of job or career sought after, these may be more essential than the specific domain or technical skills. But the need for deep technical skills is also essential as technology changes the world of work continuously. Thus, the need for the ability to obtain mastery of subject areas in great depth. The “T-shaped learner” concept designates the two-dimensions of breadth and depth.

Suffice it to say that educators, educational institutions, and employers are still early in our understanding and ability to implement these concepts. But one thing is clear.

Learners of today and the future have a story to tell—their own. And our educational systems at all levels, from K-12 to HED to corporate, play a critical role in providing better ways to help them create and tell that story.

The results from IMS-member collaboration that I’ve highlighted in this series help to chart a path to learner curation, interoperable transmission, and matching of verifiable skills to opportunities. No doubt about that.

But, as we move forward in this work, I believe the foundational concept is at least as much about design as it is capturing. Individuals have the agency to be the designers of their learning profile, their lifelong concept of mastery, including the desired breadth and depth. And institutions/corporations are designers of what constitutes mastery of the programs they offer.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, equity, agency, and mastery work in concert—they reinforce and enable each other. Equitable opportunities enable agency that, in turn, enables a focus on mastery, and better definitions of mastery enable equity. The world that Bruce Springsteen writes about in his lyrics is a tough and unforgiving place. That may never change. But as education leaders, we can begin to put in place constructs that can help students create and tell their story.