Mastery Overload.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Mastery Overload.

  1. I asked the maths teacher at the secondary pupils went to what he wanted from them. He first bristled because he thought I was asking him what to teach. He eventually said “What I want from you is children who like mathematics. If they like maths and aren’t perfect on their tables I can easily sort that out. If they know their tables and hate maths, I have a problem.” Mind you he was a big wheel in the Maths Association and had regularly taken a group of pupils to an annual International Mathematics Conference to set up a maths workshop. We have to get education out of the hands of politicians.

  2. Maths mastery was a hot topic recently when SoS Nicky Morgan praised it. At the same time the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) and ARK(which sells a version of mastery Maths) issued press releases saying recent evaluation of Maths Mastery was favourable.

    But it wasn’t quite as favourable as claimed. The EEF Toolkit played down the PR spin and said it was ‘Moderate impact for low cost, based on moderate evidence.’ The Toolkit highlighted the method is at its most effective when used short-term and careful planning was needed to ‘manage the time of pupils who make progress more quickly’.
    http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/toolkit-a-z/mastery-learning/

    It is simplistic to conclude mastery means asking pupils to recite, recite, recite.

    The two press releases were criticised heavily, by Gifted Phoenix on School Week http://schoolsweek.co.uk/reviews/education-endowment-foundation-evaluation-reports-of-two-randomised-control-trials-of-mathematics-mastery-an-ark-sponsored-programme/ and here https://giftedphoenix.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/maths-mastery-evidence-versus-spin/

  3. I think Cristina Milos outlines the ideal balance needed in Maths very well in these two posts. It really doesn’t have to be ‘mastery of the facts/procedures’ OR ‘love of Maths’. Why can’t teachers make a nutritious mix of the two? Children can cope with different kinds of focus at different times.

    https://momentssnippetsspirals.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/where-direct-instruction-fails-willingham-memorization-and-conceptual-understanding-1/ and
    https://momentssnippetsspirals.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/where-direct-instruction-fails-willingham-memorization-and-conceptual-understanding-2/

    1. I think I agree – and certainly the teacher in question does – he is hoping that he can combine both models to improve pupil’s perceptions of the subject while maintaining their achievement. Will be interesting to see what happens.

  4. I like mystery in learning – keeping open and not always telling the pupils what they will be doing, what we want them to learn, but rather engaging them in thinking and wondering about learning. In some of my training and development we explore ‘what school is for’ as a diamond 9. ‘Engendering a love of learning’ nearly always comes into the top 3. So, a new meaning to LoL! The question then, of course, is what do our classrooms, lessons, schools need to be like to engender a love of learning. Can the mastery approach manage to do this? I am sure done well, it can – but not if it is the only approach used. I wonder if people pick up on the latest fads and act like they are the only answer to all our problems, so becoming dogmatic and closed in their teaching, but thinking they are ‘doing the right thing’ (as some politicians like to say!). The ‘strategies’ were intended as guidance to good, reflective practice, but became strait-jackets as people made them into irrefutable laws of good teaching. No-one can have total mastery and there will always be mystery – it is that that makes learning both necessary and worthwhile. Thank you for talking clear sense!

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