Past Masters

‘Mastery’ is one word that every teacher will hear a dozen times a day. It’s been buzzing around staffrooms and classrooms for years now and even if we leave all the windows wide open, it’s not going to fly off. Try and swot it but you won’t get near it, mastery is the fly on the wall.

But what does mastery mean? It has sometimes been injected with a magical or mystical meaning that only the Yogis of Shanghai and Singapore classrooms can really comprehend or experience. Mastery started life as a bit of a fuzzy concept in the UK that we couldn’t quite nail down and assumed it belonged only to maths maestros.

There is no mystery to mastery learning because it is not a new idea. Its origins can be traced to the 16th century and much later to the early work of Benjamin Bloom; teachers have now come to realise that the mastery-learning model forms the basis of traditional teaching across the curriculum. Mastery is an approach that has been used for decades peaking and troughing in popularity according to political contexts. Mastery is now de rigeur so we need to dress accordingly and walk the cat walk according to its principles.

What does mastery  mean?

Mastery means spending greater time going into depth about a subject rather than racing through the things that all children should know like F1 drivers. Previously, bombing through content lead to some children having large gaps in subject knowledge because the concept they had just learnt was either too big or learnt too quickly. Schools have now learnt to slow down, take extended pit stops  to ensure that children have an absolutely solid, concrete understanding of subject knowledge and skills.

Teachers have been encouraged to have the confidence to take learning at a steadier and deeper pace, ensuring that no child is left behind, as well as providing deeper and richer experiences for children who are above the national expectation for their age. This is good news because it means we focus on all children achieving what is expected of their age group and not going beyond this.

It’s not rocket science: piles of evidence shows that children need to be able to understand a concept, apply it in a range of situations and then be creative to really understand it. If children are simply going beyond their age group this does not guarantee they understand something. Many schools now adopt a much harder line where no child is taught content from the year group above them. What happens now is that they will spend time becoming true masters of content, applying and being creative with new knowledge and skills in multiple ways.

 What does it look like?

  • Teaching all children in class, together, most of the time
  • Carefully sequenced teaching that progresses a subject
  • A teacher models mastery responses with children.
  • Uses a common language for ‘mastery’ using question stems and learning prompts
  • A curriculum that is flexible
  • Teachers use precise questioning to test conceptual and procedural knowledge
  • Teaching plans for and challenges any misconceptions pupils may have
  • Verbal feedback during lessons, shorted comments in books and more ticking of correct concepts
  • There are multiple opportunities for pupils to evaluate their own learning and that of others
  • Spending longer on one idea
  • Practice and consolidation play a central role
  • Giving children who need it, additional support over shorter, more intense periods.
  • Daily or weekly mini assessments with a few formal tests over the year

A mastery curriculum invariably involves whole-class teaching, with all pupils being taught the same concepts at the same time. Differentiation is achieved by emphasising deep knowledge and through individual support and intervention.

Small-group work usually involves challenge through added depth for the more able and help with grasping concepts and methods for less-able pupils. It means understanding real life applications wherever possible to make learning relevant and not abstract; nothing should be taught without a purpose. In some cases this will mean far less teacher talk and more evidencing learning and progress. Achieving mastery is taken to mean acquiring a solid enough understanding of the content that’s been taught to enable a pupil to more onto and into advanced material.

What you won’t see

A mastery approach means there will certain things you will see a lot less of or perhaps not at all:

  • Formal marking with lots of written feedback and highlighting
  • Covering lots of ideas in one week
  • Formal, long term interventions to boost them out of class
  • Separating children into ability groups
  • Formal testing of children weekly or termly

Mastery learning appears to be particularly effective when pupils work in groups or teams and take responsibility for supporting each other’s progress  and it also appears to be important that a high level of success is set.

Teaching to mastery has several important benefits to pupils:

  • the skills and concepts pupils acquire provide a very strong foundation for learning new skills and concepts.
  • their self-esteem increases when they master material presented to them.
  • they become more confident that they will be able to learn new material.
  • they experience more success and look forward to going to school

Teaching for mastery involves a commitment that all children can and will achieve. It involves teaching less but in more depth combined with effective questioning to root out misconceptions and rapidly addressing these. It is about cognitive stretch, aiming high and accepting nothing less than excellent.

Arguably these practices are evidence of good teaching anyway and are not exclusively attached to one teaching approach. The reality is therefore that all teachers are master teachers and mastery learning is something we all do anyway because it is simply best practice.

Kung Fu

It could be argued that we now have a Kung Fu curriculum and approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Rather than mistake Kung Fu for a Chinese martial art, this term is actually a way of describing learning that requires practice, patience, and time to acquire a skill through hard work. Kung Fu (actually gong fu) is a Chinese word roughly meaning expertise, skill, or success where gong = work and fu = time.

The fundamental principle in Kung Fu is that we try to achieve mastery through hard work whatever we are learning. This comes down to being good at something by putting in the effort – enlightenment is gradual.

You can’t rush Kung Fu because you need to spend a lot of times on the basics, mastering them and the slower you progress the better. Spending a long time building up good foundations is time well invested as the key to progress later on. A mastery curriculum encourages Kung Fu learning and pupils are our grasshoppers.

The message is clear: mastery is not a quick win because education is a long game and so as teachers we mustn’t pull the seedlings to make them grow faster because it forces the issue and just doesn’t work in pupils’ best interests. Whatever we teach, we should respect the basics, focus on the fundamental qualities and go deeper not faster.

The Kung Fu curriculum enables pupils to learn at their own pace and advance as they master content, rather than learning by the stopwatch and moving too soon onto something they simply aren’t ready for.

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