Mastery – facts, fictions, fashions and fads

Blog: Ian Davies, Director of Secondary

Mastery – facts, fictions, fashions and fads

Posted: 5/02/16

Like many educational issues, the concept of ‘mastery’ is pretty controversial, attracting fans and detractors alike. Even the definition is divisive! With so much being written on the topic right now, here are our latest thoughts on the mastery approach.

“There’s nothing new about ‘mastery’, it’s all just good teaching”

I’m happy to admit there’s a lot of truth in this.  Many of our key principles are indeed tried and tested, proven strategies. We didn’t invent the idea of the using concrete apparatus alongside pictorial representations to help students understand and use abstract notation. Nor were we the first to suggest that problem-solving skills should be developed at the same time as the learning of new mathematical content – not as an often-omitted afterthought.

However, what is new is how we bring lots of this good practice together into one approach. For example, many schools follow a ‘spiral curriculum’ – flitting between topics every day or week. In both our primary and our secondary curriculum plans, we’ve used a ‘cumulative’ structure. Each half-term, we teach fewer topics in greater depth, and we build upon and revisit mathematical topics throughout the year to develop and consolidate understanding.

This means students are constantly making links between concepts, drawing on previous learning to problem solve and help them tackle new ideas. Yes good teaching is of course paramount, but the mastery approach guides this.

“Mastery is just a fad and will soon be forgotten”

Unsurprisingly, we disagree with this wholeheartedly! We are already seeing a positive impact within our partner schools. We’ve been going for five years now and the national and international research and best practice underpinning our programme have been around far longer.

We’re well aware that transforming mathematics education in the UK is a long-term aim. As well as refining and improving existing support, each year we’ve expanded our programme into more year groups. We’ll operate from Reception up to Year 11 next academic year and KS5 is in our sights. We have many milestones ahead of us – including our first GCSE results in 2017 and our first KS2 the year after. Every year more schools join the partnership and work with us towards our mission. We have plenty more to do and we’re certainly not going anywhere in a hurry!

“The UK is nothing like Shanghai or Singapore, so it won’t work here”

It’s true that our school systems are very different, but there’s plenty to learn from each other. For example, I’m pretty sure that what many people call the ‘Singapore bar model’ has its roots in UK practice! But we don’t care who ‘invented’ it. It’s simply a great tool to help students visualise and help solve a problem. It works, so we’ll use it. We also believe that the structure of the mastery curricula used in these high performing areas must be a contributing factor to their success.

It’s another fact that there are cultural differences in relation to attitude to mathematics, parental support and engagement, level of teacher professional development etc. But we can’t just shrug our shoulders and accept these differences. We need to challenge attitudes, embrace a growth mindset, reach out to parents and find ways of making resources and support available to our teachers. This is what our partnership is all about.

“If we wait until all students have ‘mastered’ a topic, we’ll never move on”

Agreed – ‘mastery’ is a journey and long-term goal. It’s not going to be achieved at the end of a lesson, a week, a unit or any other arbitrary division of time. But the longer you spend on a topic –taking time to understand it at a conceptual as well as a procedural level – then the better the chance of retention. You also need to revisit and keep skills fresh…cue next point below!

“Even if you do study a topic in depth, children will still forget it”

This also could be true, which is why our cumulative curriculum design is so important. Looking at skills again within a different topic is all part of the journey to mastery anyway. Mastery and interleaving are not mutually exclusive; just in the same way that mastery, problem solving and inquiry aren’t.

“There’s no challenge for the most able”

Now here’s one that riles me.  Firstly, let’s address the issue of the “a” word. I confess I talked about ‘ability’ for many years, but long ago I realised that ‘low attaining’ is not the same thing as ‘low ability’ (and now I’ve just about learnt to moderate my language too).

Secondly, it is absolutely possible to challenge students of different levels of attainment within the same topic. Within the Mathematics Mastery partnership, all our primaries teach in mixed-attainment classes and more and more secondaries are moving towards this approach.

Of course we don’t dictate the classroom structure of our partner schools. But we do expect and support them to embed a growth-mindset and adopt our key principle of high expectations for every child. Our curriculum structure, our coaching and depth materials are all designed to support this and enable teachers to plan for those at different levels of attainment.

In summary, we know there’s lots of great work, and great discussion, going on out there – both within and beyond our partnership of schools. Whether it’s called ‘mastery’ or not is much less important than the fact teachers are engaging deeply in pedagogical discussions. As a result, people are changing their practice and students are the ones benefitting from our wrangles. Let’s keep talking! 

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