“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known” 1 Corinthians 13 v12.
‘Mastery’ means ‘full understanding’ according to many teachers on twitter. So ‘mastery teaching’ means not moving on with your course until something is fully understood. I don’t think teachers really think this because there is a one insurmountable problem with this definition of mastery – there is no such thing as full understanding. For example:
- When a KS1 child is first taught ‘place value’ is it conceivable that they can fully understand the notion, with all its implications? Surely many GCSE students could do with understanding place value better than they do?
- My year 10 history class use the word ‘dictatorship’ with some confidence in their writing suggesting they understand it but sometimes they do use the term incorrectly so do they understand the full implications of the term? I know they don’t because I have a better understanding of the term than they do. Do I understand the full implications of the term dictatorship? I know I don’t because the historian Richard Evans definitely understands it better than me.
- My eight year old son has started reading Harry Potter books by himself. Does he understand them? Well I don’t suppose he realises (as J K Rowling must have appreciated) that the Hogwarts house elves illustrate the Marxist notion of false consciousness. I don’t even think he gets the same depth of meaning from these books as his thirteen year old sister. So when will he be able to ‘master’ Harry Potter? Should he wait to read them until he is able to gain an appreciation of Marxist theory or just until he is mature enough to understand Harry’s teen romances?
In reality of course teachers, as professionals, don’t hang around waiting for FULL understanding – that would be ridiculous. They actually make sensible decisions about the ‘degree’ of understanding necessary for a child at that stage with the curricular content they are learning. The word, ‘mastery’ can’t tell us a thing about what this sensible degree of understanding might be.
Unfortunately the mistaken notion of ‘full understanding’ is not harmless in practice. It can mean teachers do hang around for too long focusing counter-productively on ever greater understanding. A maths teacher may be convinced that a KS1 child must fully understand place value when the notion has been taught at a basic level. They may introduce word problems to check for mastery or ‘full understanding’ of place value. In their pursuit of ‘full understanding’ they fail to consider:
- Ability to use learning in new contexts (like word problems in maths or knowledge in history sourcework or applied GCSE science questions) tends to lag behind initial learning because newly learnt knowledge is what is called ‘inflexible’. To overcome this inflexibility you need to accumulate a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples.
- In the case of reading, holding children back so they can ‘fully understand’ what they read, can mean they lack exposure to the very new words and ideas that will allow greater understanding to develop.
- As Willingham explains, knowing more facts makes many cognitive functions such as comprehension and problem solving operate more efficiently. Therefore a focus on memory (really knowing what is taught long term) as well as initial understanding is important. This means better understanding often develops after greater FLUENCY OF KNOWLEDGE has been achieved so, for example, lots of practice gaining confidence and really knowing a mathematical method can open up the possibility of further understanding of related concepts. Knowing more about the causes of World War One will make it more possible to demonstrate understanding in an essay.
I like to think of understanding and fluency of knowledge as the partners in a traditional dance. Sometimes they work in unison:
And sometimes they work apart, one going before the other, like dancers executing moves that do not involve their partner.
This means, dare I say it, sometimes it makes sense to teach knowledge and ensure it is remembered even though it means understanding lags behind. It is the teacher that needs to decide whether greater fluency of knowledge or greater understanding is more necessary at any given point. When making this decision perhaps we should bear in mind that in modern education the trend has been towards overemphasising initial understanding at the expense of necessary fluency of knowledge through ensuring that what is taught has been remembered confidently long term.
Where does this leave the word ‘mastery’? We’ve already established that mastery is not a principle we can use to judge the degree of detail in which students must grasp curricular content. Mastery can, however, describe how well children have grasped or can perform whatever the teacher has considered that they need to know or be able to do at that given point whether that is fluency of knowledge or understanding. When used in this sense the term mastery is useful. The confusion occurs because teachers think about ‘mastery’ in curricular rather than pedagogical terms:
Curricular decision: What should I teach? I should teach this concept fully…
Pedagogical decision: When should I move on? When they understand and have committed to long term memory what I have decided they need to know.
The latter pedagogical goal is a useful way to think about mastery. The former curricular goal is actually impossible (unless, perhaps you are in heaven with God and the angels…)