What is Mastery? The good, the bad, the ugly

Posted on 07-05-2019

Over the last couple of years the idea of a ‘mastery curriculum’ has become ever more popular – and ever more nebulous. I’ve heard the word ‘mastery’ applied to very different approaches to the curriculum, and as a result of that, I’ve seen plenty of people dismiss the entire concept of mastery as just another educational fad. This is a shame, because at the heart of the mastery idea is something distinctive and powerful, even if it has also come to stand for some less effective approaches as well.  From 2013-2017 I worked at Ark Schools on their English Mastery curriculum (read more about how you can take part in it here) and we had plenty of discussions about what mastery meant in practice. This blog summarises some of those discussions. Here is the good, the bad and the ugly of mastery.

  • The good: every pupil understanding everything that’s taught
  • The bad: expecting every pupil to get the same grade
  • The ugly: applying curriculum statements to assessment

The good: every pupil understanding everything that’s taught

The most powerful idea behind a mastery curriculum is that every pupil should understand everything that’s been taught. This might sound rather obvious, but if we contrast a mastery approach with a common alternative, the spiral curriculum, we can see the benefits of mastery.

Spiral curriculums teach the same units in different year groups, but in more depth. EG, a common spiral curriculum approach I have seen in English is to teach a 4 – 6 week Writing Skills unit at the start of Year 7, 8 & 9. The idea is that in each unit you tackle similar concepts – sentence structure, punctuation, style, etc – but in greater depth each time. A common structure in maths is to teach the same 10-12 3-week units in years 7, 8 & 9, but again in greater depth each time.

The problem with this spiral approach is twofold. First, 3 – 6 weeks is actually not that long a time. Each unit has quite a bit of content, and if there’s only a few weeks then there isn’t much time to adjust the pace if pupils don’t understand something the first time. Given that everything is repeated again in year 8 and year 9, the temptation is to say that ‘don’t worry – they’ll pick that up when they do it again in year 8’.

Second, the gap between the material being presented in year 7 and in year 8 is too long. Pupils need repetition, but a year-long gap in between presentations means they’ll have forgotten almost everything from year 7 by the time they get to year 8.

So the problem with the 6-12 topics-a-year spiral approach is that pupils become very familiar with lots of concepts, but they never truly master them. They are constantly hearing about fractions and the apostrophe, but never really owning them.

A mastery approach to teaching, by contrast, involves teaching one or two lessons a week on writing across a whole year, or teaching number for a whole year and postponing data handling until a later date when pupils have mastered number.  So instead of repeating the same concepts each year, you make sure pupils understand a particular foundational concept before moving to the next one. And you build in far more frequent recap and review from one lesson to the next – not from one year’s unit to the next! That’s how it worked with the writing strand of English Mastery – instead of writing being taught in one six-week unit, it was taught for two lessons every week.

For me, therefore, the biggest practical change of a mastery curriculum is to move away from the common structure of having six or twelve different topics that each last a half-term and which are each fairly self-contained. Instead, structure the curriculum as a coherent and cumulative sequence, where it is obvious how every lesson builds on the previous one, and where content from previous lessons is frequently reviewed and recalled.

It’s clear how you can do this in hierarchical subjects like maths and writing. But even in subjects like literature and history, where you might want to move more frequently to a different book or a different era of history, I still think that this approach is important. There has to be a common thread linking the different topics or books. One obvious way to do this in history is with a chronological structure,but you can add in other links too. For example, you can have five or six themes – say, culture, society, technology, military, politics – which are always considered in every new historical era you study.  And it isn’t enough just for the teacher or curriculum designer to be aware of the chronological structure. There have to be frequent review points built into the curriculum that allow pupils to recap prior topics and explicitly make the links to the newer topics. EG the Egyptians used hieroglyphics, the Greeks used an alphabet and Gutenberg invented a printing press – these different ways of communicating changed the way these societies worked. With English Mastery we took a similar approach for literature. There were only three literature units a year rather than the more standard 5 or 6, and the study of every text involved explicit recap and recall of texts that had been studied in previous units and years.

If you do structure a curriculum like this, it then allows formative assessment to be used in the most effective way. During and at the end of every lesson, you can ask a series of questions about the content you are teaching, and the aim should be for every pupil to get every question right. If pupils don’t get the question right, you reteach and review the content until they do. At first sight, the statement: ‘‘Every pupil should get every question right all the time’ can sound a bit extreme, but remember these are questions and lessons that either you or a textbook / curriculum designer is planning. They are easy questions, and they are either about the content you have just been teaching, or about content from previous lessons that you have frequently recapped. They aren’t trick questions, or complex ones, or ones the pupils haven’t seen for ten months. They are simple questions on recently taught or reviewed content.

The bad: expecting every pupil to get the same grade

The statement ‘every pupil should get every question right all the time’ is incredibly powerful when applied to the formative assessment going on during and at the end of every lesson. However, it is really dangerous when applied to graded summative assessments that take place at less frequent points throughout the year. 

Let’s imagine you teach a mixed ability class a sequence of great mastery lessons on writing where they all get the formative questions right at the end of the lesson (and if they don’t you review and recap the lesson) and where you are repeating material from previous lessons anyway to ensure long-term learning. Every pupil is getting every question right as you go. Let’s imagine at the end of, say, 18 weeks, you give the pupils a different kind of assessment: an extended writing test, say, where they are given a picture stimulus and have to respond to it. However superb your teaching has been, every pupil is not going to get – and should not get – the same grade on that test. Even in a class that has been set by ability, you would still expect some variation.

Why is this? That test is testing something very different from whether the pupils have learnt what you’ve taught them in those lessons. It is testing a much bigger domain of content, and it is doing so in order to give some idea of how those pupils are doing relative to their peers in other schools. The grades and scaled scores produced by summative assessments are designed to produce a shared meaning: a statement about the pupil’s performance on a complex domain that has meaning outside of your school context.  We know that in these types of assessment, there is a range of achievement. We see such a range in every country and society we have data for. There is a range of achievement in Korea, Finland, Sweden and Japan as much as there is in the US and the UK. The extent and nature of the range varies, but it does exist. Over time we can expect that with good teaching all pupils can improve and we can reduce the range by particularly improving the performance of lower-attaining pupils, but it is likely that a range will remain.

In the worst-case scenario, I’ve seen mastery interpreted not as ‘every pupil can master complex concepts’ but as ‘every pupil can (and should) achieve the same grade’. I’ve also seen it interpreted as meaning a big increase in pupil targets which will be achieved not through changing the curriculum, but through having “higher expectations”. When this happens, it leads to disillusionment, teaching to the test, gaming and even outright cheating. It makes the difficult structural and curriculum reforms needed for a proper mastery curriculum even less likely.

The ugly: applying curriculum statements to assessment

One approach that I have seen encouraged by some assessment recording systems is to place all the statements from a mastery curriculum onto a spreadsheet, and then track whether pupils have met them or not, usually with some kind of three part system – RAG rating or ‘emerging, expected, exceeding’ or similar. This is the worst of all systems! First, these statements will not give you helpful formative information. These curriculum statements are not designed to provide useful feedback either to pupils or teachers. As Dylan Wiliam has said, how useful is it to tell a student that ‘their scientific investigations need to be planned more systematically’? If they had known how to be more systematic, presumably they would have been so in the first place.

Second, these statements will not give you a shared summative meaning about the pupils’ performance, because they are capable of being interpreted in so many different ways.  Take the statement ‘Pupils can compare fractions and identify which is larger’. That’s a fairly precise statement, but even so it is capable of being interpreted in many different ways. 90% of 14-year-olds will give you the right answer when asked to compare 1/7 and 5/7. But only 15% will when asked to compare 5/7 and 5/9. And if that is true of a fairly precise statement in an objective subject like maths, how much more true is it of statements like ‘can use vocabulary with originality and flair?’

Third, this approach is enormously time-consuming and again will therefore prevent investment of time into restructuring the curriculum, which is what is really needed.

The most valuable work you can do to create a mastery curriculum to is to structure the lessons so that there are frequent opportunities for you to check if pupils have learnt what you have just taught them, and for pupils to recap, review and consolidate their prior learning. Interpreting it to mean changes in your targets or your tracking system is to miss the point.