Myth #2: Mastery is a level

This myth is a funny one. Right from the off the teachers I was working with on Mathematics Mastery were absolutely clear that mastery was for all.

A mastery curriculum is one where all pupils learn what is expected.

In high-performing countries the intention is to provide all learners with full access to the curriculum, enabling them to achieve confidence and competence – ‘mastery’ – in mathematics’.

Everyone is entitled to:

  • deep and sustainable learning
  • learning that can be built upon
  • learning that can be reasoned about
  • learning that’s connected
  • conceptual and procedural fluency

The confusion may arise from a DfE consultation on primary performance descriptors testing, in which they baffled and bemused us all by suggested four levels of achievement for the end of key stage 1:

So it makes no sense to think of mastery as a level that some learners will reach and others won’t.

Mastery should be the aim for all.

  • Below national standard
  • Towards national standard
  • At national standard
  • At mastery standard

There was so much wrong with this I didn’t know where to begin in responding to the consultation. Maybe it was a blessing in some ways, as it triggered a national debate about whether ‘mastery’ was a performance level above national expectations, or something all should strive towards. (And a general consensus that it was the latter).

But not only is ‘mastery’ not a level that only some learners will reach, it is a level of competence that arguably no learners will ever actually reach.

You never achieve mastery!

I get quite upset when I see textbooks and other classroom resources with ‘mastery checks’ – the implication being that by answering five straightforward and familiar questions correctly, you demonstrate mastery of a concept or skill. Of course you don’t.

As I say in Mastering Mathematics:

“A mathematical concept or skill has been mastered when, through exploration, clarification, practice and application over time, a person can represent it in multiple ways, has the mathematical language to be able to communicate related ideas, and can think mathematically with the concept so that they can independently apply it to a totally new problem in an unfamiliar situation”

This is an infinite continuum – there are always more interesting ways to represent an idea, there’s more language and more complex communication, and mathematical thinking can surely always be deepened? As for new problems and unfamiliar situations; new problems arise all the time, and you can never claim to have considered every possible situation.

Mastery is simultaneously:

  • something that every teacher should aspire to for every pupil, regardless of starting point
  • an unachievable lifelong quest.

Mastery is not a level.


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