Why is Mastery just for Maths?

The trouble with failing to lay proper foundations.

The trouble with failing to lay proper foundations.

With the new National Curriculum, and a whole host of new players in the field of education, it is certainly a time of innovation of sorts in our schools. I have been interested in the work being done by Ark and others looking at mastery in mathematics. It seems that their approach – based in some part on that used in Singapore and like places – is built on the premise of covering fewer topics in greater depth each year, with the intention that over the course of a child’s education they receive a thorough education in each stage of the process.[1]

This strikes me as sensible. Too often I have taught children at KS3 who have raced through the curriculum, picking up bits of skills, but for whom the basics of number knowledge and calculation are still insecure. The comparison to the end-moments of the game, Jenga, is too often fitting: students who lack the secure base on which to build their higher knowledge soon come crashing down.

It has meant that this year I am approaching my teaching of maths with something of a mastery model.

But I’ve got to thinking. Why does it need only to apply to maths?

I’ve also, this week, seen students in my class complete an unaided writing task in which it seems they ignored everything they have been taught this half term and just jotted down notes at random. After some initial frustration (as is common), I soon realised that the fault here was mine (as is also common).

I have taught them a good deal over the past few weeks in terms of writing skills. But I’m not convinced I’ve given them enough time to really securely practise and secure their use of those skills. And so, just like the kids who can’t do their tables in Y10, I’ve got students who haven’t applied even half of what they’ve learned.

I suspect that my model of teaching is not unlike that of many other primary teachers. We’ve looked at a particular genre, linked to a theme we’re studying, over a couple of weeks, and I’ve used that vehicle to teach some appropriate structures and techniques. However, I fear that the downfall of the process has been the movement on to another genre and another set of techniques for the next fortnight. Indeed, I know many schools where each block lasts a week before moving on.

What I’ve begun to consider is not yet a fully-formed idea, so excuse my thinking ‘out loud’, but I’m wondering now if maybe I need to re-think how I tackle these things. What if next half term I identified just a handful of core skills that I wanted to really allow the children to explore and embed. My initial thoughts are to select just three issues from text, sentence and word level (à la Literacy Hour 1998)

So, for example, I might decide that next half term I’m going to focus on:

  • Developing fuller/more detailed paragraphs
  • Variety in sentence length
  • Use of verbs

Those key ideas can be woven through the themes and genres we’re looking at in a variety of ways, but importantly, in ways which complement one another, and which allow the children to become more proficient at each of them, rather than flitting from one idea to the next. They’re sufficiently broad to allow for a sensible amount of development and differentiation, while still providing a sense of connected learning and practice for all.

My units planned so far for next half are likely to be ghost story-writing, creating a narrative from a comic strip, and then some form of descriptive writing about the locality. Each of those would easily lend itself to all three of those skills – with some particularly strong in different areas – and so perhaps by the time we reached Christmas I might have some students who were really secure in some of the elements of that, rather than having had a taster of lots of techniques, few of which have stuck.

Like I said, it’s not a fully-formed idea yet, so I’d be exceptionally glad of any thoughts and experiences from others who have tried similar things – or think it best avoided. All comments welcome!

[1] If you aren’t already familiar with the Ark Mastery Project, it’s worth taking a look at their website for a brief insight: http://www.mathematicsmastery.org/


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13 thoughts on “Why is Mastery just for Maths?

  1. teachingbattleground 18 October 2013 at 6:09 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Shaun 18 October 2013 at 6:10 pm Reply

    Sounds like you’ve really thought through this approach. For writing, we spend at least a month on a particular style of writing. All linked to developing vocabulary, sentence work and their creative writing. We (and others) must be careful to make sure that even though we are developing mastery that we are still working throug topics fast enough for the children of higher ability.

    • Michael Tidd 18 October 2013 at 6:34 pm Reply

      Thanks for your comments, Shaun. I recognise your point about the higher ability students, although I’m not persuaded that working through topics is best even for them. Stretch and challenge can come through lots of routes other than pace, in my opinion.

  3. shaunhoppermaths 18 October 2013 at 6:11 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Fabtastic Teaching Ideas and commented:
    An interesting thought on the development of mastery as. A technique for developing deeper understanding.

  4. Michael Tidd 9 November 2013 at 12:58 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Do Less, But Better and commented:

    A post focussing on reducing the amount of detail in curriculum overview, to focus more on teaching fewer elements effectively.

  5. Jo 15 November 2013 at 7:07 pm Reply

    I have long thought that we move on too quickly and will be very interested to read the Ark project on mastery.
    In writing, we use the Talk for Writing’ imitate, innovate and invent! Until recently we did a fiction and non fiction unit each half term but now we do one or the other. This has worked much better for us and has allowed us to be much more responsive to the needs of the children. We do have key areas of focus eg characterisation and text structure but If we find we need a session on better connectives, sentence structure or punctuation, we can fit it in without worrying that we won’t finish the unit. We are also able to fit in more opportunities for distance writing that allows children opportunities to use new skills in other text types without the detailed scaffolding of the talk for writing model.

  6. Michael Tidd 16 November 2013 at 3:44 pm Reply

    Thanks for your comments, Jo. It’s good to know that others are also looking at the process of doing “less, but better.”
    Do you find, though, that an individual session on connectives has much impact? I wonder if they need to be regular, or at least in blocks?

  7. […] Intuitively, teachers’ instincts on this are corroborated by the scientific research. As Michael Tidd asked in a recent blogpost, […]

  8. […] have written previously about how I intend to use a mastery approach for more than just maths teaching this year. I know what outcomes I want over the year, so why not […]

  9. Veronica 6 March 2014 at 11:21 am Reply

    Nothing here that good teachers don”t already know! Comment intended to be read with a positive slant! Some further reading along these lines can be found at ‘Slow Education’; same theory and also backed by research. No idea who said it first but I use it frequently in my seminars and courses. Learning is not an event … it is a process. I have no connection to ‘Slow Education’ (although I agree with its principles). You can read more here: http://sloweducation.co.uk/2013/06/10/slow-schools-mean-deep-learning-by-professor-maurice-holt-2/
    or Slow Education on Facebook (Slow Education)
    or Twitter (@Slow_Education)

  10. […] assessment here, and has made more specific proposals about a mastery approach to assessment here, with an interesting comparison to a game of […]

  11. […] have written more about this mastery approach for English and also for KS2 […]

  12. […] assessment here, and has made more specific proposals about a mastery approach to assessment here, with an interesting comparison to a game of […]

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