Mastery Learning – getting the foundations right

In the 12th Century, construction of a bell tower behind the Pisa Cathedral began. Due to it being built upon soft soil with only 3m of foundations, the tower began to subside on one side during the construction phase. Despite this, the bell tower was eventually completed nearly 200 years after starting. However, each year the tower increased its tilt by 1mm, until in 2001 it got to the point of no return. Had work not been carried out to correct the foundations, the tower would have collapsed under the immense pressure being exerted on it. Although it has now been corrected (to an extent), engineers believe that in a couple of centuries, it will likely be at a point where correction will need to be made again.

The_Leaning_Tower_of_Pisa_SB.jpeg.jpeg
Isn’t this interesting? Due to building upon poor foundations, the building will never last without regular intervention…

Reminds me a bit of education. Before I make the link more explicit, let me digress to a term that is bandied around a lot in education – MASTERY LEARNING. Sounds pretty awesome, indeed I imagine you’ve heard a consultant, manager or colleague throw the term around in an attempt to sound awesome and you’ve no doubt thought to yourself… they’re awesome! For those of you that don’t know what it is, here are a couple of definitions:

The Wikipedia definition cites:

‘Mastery learning (or, as it was initially called, “learning for mastery”) is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, first formally proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968. Mastery learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (e.g., 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. If a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information and then tested again. This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery, and they may then move on to the next stage.’

Slavin defined mastery learning as:

‘The principal defining characteristic of mastery learning methods is the establishment of a criterion level of performance held to represent “mastery” of a given skill or concept, frequent assessment of student progress toward the mastery criterion, and provision of corrective instruction to enable students who do not initially meet the mastery criterion to do so on later parallel assessment.’

Isn’t this just good teaching?

In maths, would I allow learners to move onto percentages if they can’t perform division and multiplication?

In anatomy and physiology, would I allow learners to move onto the energy systems if they didn’t understand the structure and functions of the respiratory system?

Of course not. Without sufficient underpinning of the foundation knowledge, then I’d be setting them up to fail by introducing new concepts.

Let me go back to the leaning tower – had the builders established it upon a solid layer of soil and with much deeper foundations, it is unlikely that their successors would be required to save the damn thing every couple of hundred years. So with teaching, if we spend time getting the basics right before moving on to more advanced things, perhaps our successors won’t need to go back over the foundations.
For all their faults (according to others, not me), the EEF actually inform us that mastery learning can improve achievement by 5 months. They state that:

  1. Overall, mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining students

  2. Implementing mastery learning effectively is not straightforward, however, requiring a number of complex components and a significant investment in terms of design and preparation

  3. Setting clear objectives and providing feedback from a variety of sources so that learners understand their progress appear to be key features of using mastery learning effectively. A high level of success, at least 80%, should be required before pupils move on

  4. Incorporating group and team approaches where pupils take responsibility for helping each other within mastery learning appears to be effective.

Whilst I understood points 1, 3 and 4 (features of good teaching), I was a little perplexed by point 2, so investigated this further. In one of the cited articles looking at the impact of a mastery maths programme, the following was stated:

‘Typically, mastery approaches involve breaking down subject matter and learning content into discrete units with clear objectives and pursuing these objectives until they are achieved before moving on to the next unit. Students are generally required to show high levels of achievement before progressing to master new content. This approach differs from conventional approaches, which often cover a specified curriculum at a particular pre-determined pace.’

I’m not convinced that this is dissimilar to conventional approaches. Sure, there is often a lot of content to cover in most qualifications, but good teachers know how important it is to master the basics before moving on. The EEF go on to add that:

‘In addition to the ‘mastery curriculum’, other features of the approach include a systematic approach to mathematical language (see Hoyles, 1985; Lee, 1998), frequent use of objects and pictures to represent mathematical concepts (see Heddens, 1986; Sowell, 1989), and an emphasis on high expectations (see Dweck, 2006; Boaler, 2010).’ 

Hang on… so what was being measured in this study? Was it the impact of mastery learning, language use, dual coding or high expectations, or…all of the above? At this point I was confused, but I did note that these are, what I would call, characteristics of good teaching.

 

As can be seen, mastery learning is a bit of an en-vogue concept with, in some cases, a lack of clarity. In reality, it is a sign of good teaching – ensuring that the foundations are right before moving on.

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