Myth #5: Mastery is new

‘Teaching for Mastery’ is what great teachers are doing already. The current movement to adopt a ‘mastery’ curriculum, to ‘teach for mastery’ and take a ‘mastery approach’ is just a pulling together of a whole bunch of ‘what works’. I’m pretty excited about it, but it doesn’t have to be new to be exciting.

In his ResearchEd session last month, Mark McCourt emphasised this. He showed how approaches with key features of mastery – high expectations of all learners – have been introduced on an approximate thirty year cycle.

What is new, is the National Curriculum’s different understanding of what constitutes progress. Underpinning our new curriculum is a different understanding of what constitutes progress. The expectation now is that all learners fully understand the key facts and concepts before moving on to new material. Under the old curriculum the temptation was to move pupils on to higher levels in order to show progress. They might not all have fully understood what they had learnt in previous levels with the result that learning was not fully secure. So, the expectation now is that pupils learn fewer things in greater depth.

“ the National Curriculum should focus on ‘fewer things in greater depth’, in secure learning which persists, rather than relentless, over-rapid progression…”

Tim Oates, TES, Oct 14

Myth #4: Mastery means no differentiation

This myth is very understandable. It’s wrong, but understandable.

Compared to other countries, the UK has a bigger gap between the highest and lowest attaining students in mathematics.[1] The 1980s saw a ‘7 year gap’ in the spread of attainment on entry to secondary schools.[2] Is there any evidence yet that this gap is closing?

Dividing the class or year group according to perceived ability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Low attainers’ will achieve less than ‘high attainers’.

The National Curriculum programmes of study state:

“The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace. Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content”.[3]

The DfE is expecting high attaining pupils to demonstrate their abilities and understanding by applying what they know in more complex and multi‐layered questions.

The new test materials for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 are significantly different from previous testing arrangements ‐ in particular in how higher attaining children are ‘stretched’.

From 2016, the Year 6 SATs have been designed to not include questions of objectives beyond Y6; similarly, the Year 2 assessments do not include questioning of objectives beyond Y2.

In the past, learners who grasped ideas quickly tended to be challenged by being introduced to new concepts and skills.

Teaching for mastery is about committing to reduce variation in student achievement and close achievement gaps.

Key strategies for differentiation within a mastery approach include:

  • Skilful questioning within lessons to promote conceptual understanding
  • Identifying and rapidly acting on misconceptions which arise through same day intervention
  • Challenging, through rich and sophisticated problems, those pupils who grasp concepts rapidly, before any acceleration through new content
  • Use of concrete, pictorial and abstract representations.[4]

[1] PISA (2014) PISA in Focus 34:Who are the strong performers and successful reformers in education?

[2] Cockcroft, W. H. (1982) Mathematics counts: report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools under the chairmanship of W.H. Cockcroft, London, HMSO.

[3] DFE (2013) National curriculum in England: framework for key stages 1 to 4. London: Department for Education.

[4] Guskey, T. (2009) The Development of Mastery Learning