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UNICEF estimates that the world has lost an estimated two trillion hours of education time to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also say that this lost time has affected up to 1.6 billion learners, with some out of school for up to two years. 

With so much lost time due to the pandemic, the effects have been detrimental. It is estimated that 70% of 10 year-olds in low and middle income countries struggle with reading comprehension for simple written texts, an increase of more than a third from 57% pre-pandemic levels. With most schools aiming to “move students along” based on their age, it is a challenge to teach kids at varied ability levels. 

According to Tim Vandenberg, a sixth grade teacher from the Hesperia Unified School District of California, it is “extremely difficult for most teachers, probably all teachers, to really meet each kid at their individual mastery level.”

“You’re gonna have a third of the class tracking with you, a third of the class wishing you’d move faster and a third of the class wishing you’d reteach that a few more times,” Vandenberg said.

Vandenberg refers to “mastery” evidenced by his students significantly increasing their scores on the California State Tests when compared to their peers. But when so many students have lost education time due to COVID-19 and grapple with other factors such as poverty and limited access to resources, time allocated to mastery is limited. 

The online education resource Khan Academy hopes to solve the problem of “mastery.” In a school where the aim is to move students along, even when they have not mastered the objectives for their previous grade level, the work only gets harder. That’s where Khan Academy comes in. 

Vandenberg uses Khan Academy such that his students can master “as much of the grade level specific skills as they can.” He adds how the gaps in knowledge are filled in with his methodology: “while still simultaneously teaching and mastering the sixth grade skills […] I require them to do the course challenges and unit tests for all of the lower grade levels so that math actually starts to make sense to them.”

When the students are introduced to a new topic, they are given a lecture about it and then immediately directed to Khan Academy, where they complete the challenges and assignments available. If they are ever stuck, they must use Khan Academy’s available resources such as videos and tutorials to get themselves unstuck. Vandenberg monitors the class, but offers no material-specific guidance. That way, the students can teach themselves to become independent learners and “learn how to learn,” Vandenberg said. Vandenberg says that it is paramount that students know instantly if they are “properly grasping a skill.”

This model can be applicable anywhere. Educators everywhere are taking this mastery-based model and making it even better. Students affected by COVID-19 , even those in higher grades, can start at Khan Academy as early as kindergarten and work their way up. It’s part of a growing movement of teachers shifting from a “sage on the stage” to a mentor/coach, or a “guide on the side” who can help close the gap.