Myth #1: Mastery has a single definition

Mastery Myth #1: Mastery has a single definition

When Tom Bennett asked me to present at researchED, it seemed a great opportunity to bust a few of the myths around ‘mastery’. Here are the five myths I chose to challenge:

  • Myth #1: Mastery has a single definition
  • Myth #2: Mastery is a ‘level’
  • Myth #3: Teaching for mastery requires repetitive practice
  • Myth #4: Teaching for mastery means no differentiation
  • Myth #5: Mastery is new

They all attracted considerable interest on Saturday (Myth #5 seems to have had the most attention on Twitter) so I’m going to attempt a bit of written mastery myth-busting here.

Myth #1: Mastery has a single definition

Way back in 2011, the lovely folk at the EEF gave Ark funding, and I was thrilled to find myself with the opportunity of starting a national partnership of schools to transform achievement in mathematics. But what to call it?

As you can imagine, this was the topic of considerable debate, and when we finally alighted on ‘Mathematics Mastery’ we had a few concerns:

  • Was it a bit masculine? Did the ‘master’ aspect suggest that success in maths was not for girls?
  • You don’t really ever ‘master’ maths; was it odd to launch a partnership programme with an unachievable aim?

One thing we didn’t do was check the academic literature for references to mastery – if we had, we’d have discovered that Benjamin Bloom did a lot more than just his famously triangular taxonomy. In the late 60s and early 70s, he used the term ‘mastery’ prolifically to refer to a cyclical approach to teaching and learning[1].

By 1990 a fair few studies into the effectiveness of mastery learning had been carried out, mostly in the US, and a meta-analysis of 108 concluded that it raises achievement. The effects appeared to be greater for lower achieving students, though they were enormously variable.[2]

The term ‘mastery’ has also been used by Carol Dweck to describe a mindset where learners seek to improve and develop, to acquire new skills and master new situations, rather than being preoccupied by proving their ability to others or avoiding negative judgments.[3]

A year or two later I had a very memorable conversation with Jeremy Hodgen (@JeremyHodgen Nottingham University, formerly King’s) which looped along the following lines:

Me: When we say mastery we don’t mean Bloom’s mastery
Jeremy: But mastery is Bloom’s mastery
Me: We use it to describe an approach with high expectations for all, and more time for each topic. But we don’t make pupils stick with a topic until they get 80% on a test.
Jeremy: Then why on earth did you call it mastery?

Note to self – in the event you find yourself naming an organisation again, check the research literature first.

Actually, I could argue that there are more similarities than differences between Bloom’s and our use of ‘mastery’. And there are certainly many similarities between my use of it with Mathematics Mastery, and its use by organisations such as the NCETM.

What do mastery approaches have in common?

An emphasis on success for all – a commitment that all pupils can and will succeed.

Belief that this can be achieved by developing conceptual understanding, with a focus on mathematical structures.

Most mastery approaches advocate:

  • keeping the whole class together
  • teaching less in more depth
  • not moving on until ideas are understood
  • promoting understanding through a variety of representations.

However…many teaching approaches advocate all of the above and do not use the term mastery; many approaches that call themselves ‘mastery’ don’t advocate all of the above.

Important post script

I knew I’d been inspired by NAMA’s ‘Five Myths of Mastery in Mathematics’, though I did pick some slightly different myths to bust. Many thanks to Andrew Jeffries for pointing out just how aligned my presentation was to the NAMA document – and even more thanks to NAMA!  

[1] Bloom, B. S. (1968) Learning for Mastery. Instruction and Curriculum. Regional Education Laboratory for the Carolinas and Virginia, Topical Papers and Reprints, Number 1. Evaluation comment, 1, n2.

Bloom, B. S. (1971) Individual Differences in School Achievement-a Vanishing Point: A Monograph. Aera-pdk Award Lecture Annual Meeting American Educational. Research Association New York February 6, 1971, Phi Delta Kappa.

Bloom, B. S. (1971) Mastery learning. Mastery learning: Theory and practice, 47-63.

[2] Kulik, C.-L. C., Kulik, J. A. & Bangert-Drowns, R. L. (1990) Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60, 265-299.

[3] Dweck, C. S. (1986) Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040.

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