Mastery and all that

Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

That youth and observation copied there – Hamlet

Mastery is once again being debated. This is a good thing, since it drives us to ask questions about what mastery is, why we need it and what happens when we don’t have it. Our view of mastery is intimately connected with our view of knowledge and of learning.

One of the criticisms recently made, for example, is that mastery means different things to different people and that this will lead to shaky implementations. The problem with this criticism is that it does not actually define mastery. What it does highlight is that education is still immature as a discipline because we lack a shared technical language. Our language is politicised rather than technical. Other terms that have different meanings to different camps are fluency, practice, mindset, and character. Ethical and political concerns are inevitable and should be discussed freely. Our failure is that we have not succeeded in any kind of scientific consensus on even the most fundamental learning processes. And this is not because the science does not exist; it is because the science is not politically acceptable.

Take the term ‘mastery’. One of the comments made on David Didau’s blog (in response  to Jo Facer’s post on a mastery curriculum) is that ‘deeper learning results from forgetting and re-learning’. Is this mastery?  Such a definition of ‘deep learning’ implies that a good education involves forgetting everything that has been learned, and then re-learning it. It seems to me that it is difficult to argue that anything has been learned if it cannot be remembered. Secondly, the colossal waste of time and resources implicit in such an approach would cost billions with limited impact on the population (which suggests that such an approach may well be at the heart of UK education policy).  Clearly those who argue for forgetting and re-learning have an entirely different view of mastery from those who believe that students should remember what they have learned.

The painful irony is that decades ago, clear definitions with solid supporting evidence were appearing in the research literature. Like Auden’s expensive, delicate ship, the profession sailed calmly on despite something amazing having appeared – in this case, not a boy falling from the sky, but useful research findings. For example, White and Haring as far back as 1980 proposed a concept of mastery recognising different dimensions of learning:

  • Accuracy – being able to do, solve or recall with a high level of accuracy.
  • Fluency – being able to perform a skill with a high degree of accuracy and speed.
  • Retention – being able to recall the skill or knowledge over time
  • Generalisation – being able to adapt the skill or knowledge appropriately to different contexts.

One of the fears of those who question mastery is that it will narrow the curriculum and prevent students from generalising skills. One of the fears for proponents of  mastery is that without accuracy, fluency, and retention, generalisation will be halting, temporary and often ineffectual. Both, of course, have a point. A mastery curriculum needs to address all of these stages of learning – and mastery teaching must ensure that individual students achieve mastery in each dimension. Despite long-standing evidence, consisting of thousands of individual studies which identified precise criteria for fluent mastery, you are unlikely to hear such a view of learning expressed in a teacher training institution. It is too ‘simplistic’, too ‘technical’, too lacking in ‘heart’ for the New Romantics who have colonised education.

An even deeper test of mastery is how previous learning impacts on new learning. When more foundational skills and knowledge have been mastered to a high degree of fluency, they are not only remembered more easily but also combined with other knowledge or skills to enable ‘leaps’ in knowledge. If new learning is a struggle, if key concepts are misremembered or misapplied, if facts are recalled slowly resulting in the overload of working memory, it is clear that what went before was not mastered. But in the pressure of the modern education world, it is scarcely conceivable that a teacher would insist on more practice before moving students to new knowledge. There is a curriculum, there are schemes of work, there is a timetable, there are assessments, and there are observations, work scrutinies and performance reviews. In this environment, those who most need practice most are least likely to get it.

A real mastery curriculum will ensure that learning happens in small steps “such that the learner could induce mastery in a few minutes.” (Engelmann and Colvin, 2006 ).  Constant small successes are the key to mastery – along with generous amounts of carefully sequenced (not random) practice. At first students will not be making the fabled ‘rapid’ progress – but they will know that they have learned and understood and they will begin to feel more successful and confident. Over time, they will combine new learning with previous learning with little effort to recall what was previously studied, and will begin to grow in knowledge, in understanding, and in self-efficacy. They will accelerate through the curriculum. They will become increasingly independent, and own the knowledge that they have acquired for themselves.

One of the problems with mastery is that we have not paid enough attention to the work of those who have gone before. For teachers, the guardians of knowledge, to ignore their predecessors is a tragedy. Another tragedy is that perhaps we cannot understand mastery learning because we have never really experienced it for ourselves. There is no unified body of knowledge for teachers to master; everyone must have their own ‘philosophy of teaching’. Romanticism, individualism, and the platitudes espoused as ‘good practice’ in teacher training institutions have left us slaves to ‘every wind of doctrine’.

Perhaps, as Hamlet suggests, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our ‘philosophies’.


Binder, C., Haughton, E., & Bateman, B.  (1992) Fluency: Achieving True Mastery in the Learning Process.

Engelmann, S., & Colvin, G. (2006) Rubric for Identifying Authentic Direct Instruction Programs.

Johnson, K., and Layng, T. V. J. (1992) Breaking the Structuralist Barrier: Literacy and Numeracy Through Fluency.

White O., & Haring, N. G. (1980) Teaching Exceptional Children.

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4 Responses to Mastery and all that

  1. JL Dutaut says:

    This is a very useful, precise post in every aspect regarding mastery. I can’t fault it. The most interesting passage for me, however, is your contention that mastery lacks in ‘heart’ for the New Romantics who have colonised education.
    Rather than a denigration of the value of a mastery approach to learning, are we not witnessing in this rhetorical swordplay two contending visions of curriculum?
    The question for me is whether schools have a duty only to develop knowledge and skills in a narrow set of subjects determined by tradition and the needs of the job market, or whether a school curriculum ought also to include mastery learning about the self (in terms of psychology, but also in respect of each student as an individual with interests, passions and goals, and with long-term well-being as an explicit aim).
    There may be some for whom ‘heart’ means something else, and your response to my comment may well be as derogatory as your response to them, but I would be grateful for you to take the time to explore this further.

    • I think that schools have enough on their plates trying to ensure that students are literate, numerate, logical thinkers who know a lot about the world. If we get that right, I’m pretty sure the personal growth and development will follow.

      • JL Dutaut says:

        Doesn’t knowledge of the world also entail knowledge of yourself within it, of self-mastery as it were, as well as of cultural norms and values?

        My other line of questioning is at what point do we say an individual can develop a curriculum relevant to themselves, as opposed to making themselves as far as possible relevant to the curriculum? Is that what we call adulthood? Should school not then prepare children for that growing responsibility for lifelong learning, and if so, does that not start with thorough investigation of oneself and one’s goals and ambitions?

  2. You’ve misunderstood Didau’s point about forgetting. He is saying that partial forgetting always occurs. The effort to recall partially forgotten knowledge helps to consolidate that knowledge. This is one of the reasons why spaced practice is so important, and why current performance is such a poor guide to long term learning.

    The intricate pattern of repetition combined with incrementally introduced new material found in Engelmann’s programmes takes this into account. There’s no contradiction, in principle, between Didau’s point about forgetting and the mastery inculcated by a thorough programme of explicit instruction.

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