In what my youngest son calls the “olden days” I used to teach English Language A Level. One of the units we covered was gender and language and we’d look at the different words used to describe men and women and their connotations. Master and mistress was always a classic example. I’ve been minded of this as the idea of a ‘mastery’ curriculum has burst onto the educational landscape with all the momentum and enthusiasm of VAK.
Drawing from what is often an overly simplified idea of practices in Asian countries like Singapore, mastery models, particularly in Maths, are now all the rage. And like any fashion, there are both couture and cheap copies available. Last week I was asked by a Maths teacher to hold a focus group session with a class of Year 7s. He didn’t want them to be swayed by his presence, so he prepared the questions and got me to ask them. His school has been running a mastery model for a while and he has some questions about the way it is perceived by pupils. The first question sought to elicit some reflections about the way Maths was taught in Year 6, but the answers were not what either of us expected:-
Q : What do you remember about Maths lessons in primary school?
A : SATs practice (a unanimous answer)
When I ask them if they recall anything else, they all talk about repetition
“we did times tables over and over again until we were sick of them”.
“when you have to keep repeating stuff even when you already know it, you start to hate it”.
“we even keep doing times tables in Year 7, like three years going on and on about them isn’t enough”.
And when asked about lessons in year 7 they said the same thing about fractions.
“we do fractions over and over until we just want to jump out of the window”.
It takes a lot of prompting to get the children to try to recall things they enjoy about Maths (and these are top set) but when they do they start to talk about investigations and inquiries they’ve done in the past. Lessons where “you had to work out codes and clues and find out things for yourself – it makes you think”. And they mention lessons where “we had to pull together as a team to figure it out – working in a group to get the answers”.
It’s only one group in one school on one day…but these children are articulating some of my concerns about this obsession with mastery coupled with the demands for ‘grit’. There is no joy in this vision of learning. What is the point in taking children on a learning journey in which they feel like passengers trapped in a repetitive hell? We need more Mystery than Mastery if we are going to have children who love the subjects we teach.