More on “Mastery”

After reading about Vietnamese teaching methods yesterday, today, completely by chance it seems, sees an interesting article in the Guardian about some Maths Mastery that’s been done mimicking some of the stuff done in Singapore.

Now, after 25 years, I’m as much of a cynic about Far Eastern learning methods as you can find even in the darkest recesses of the staff room. But, there’s some interesting stuff to be seen here:

  • there’s proper research with control groups and a decent sample size and all going on. That’s promising;
  • the research needs to carry on for another 4 years. That’s also promising and suggests this isn’t just another attempt to force another fad down the throats of teachers;
  • the apparent gain after a year was small;
  • the curriculum being modelled is dealing with depth and mastery rather than simply adding a whole pile of content.

The first three points are interesting enough, but it’s the last one I need to focus on.

The current UK government seems to be insistent on adding massive swathes of content to our GCSE and Key Stage 3 curriculums. The Science GCSE drafts, for example, contain massive amounts of knowledge content which will need to be rote learned – I mentioned yesterday about Newton’s Laws and a whole pile of formulae. This seems, to me, to be at odds with the Far Eastern mastery style of work, where less needs to be learned but it needs to be understood and applied more broadly.

Take, for example, the “Hannah’s Sweets” GCSE Maths question (Edexcel, June 2015). I heard, like everyone else, about the Twitter furore brewed up by 16 year olds who couldn’t do it. But it’s exactly the sort of question that anyone who’s been taught to master Maths should be able to do – as opposed to the teaching to the test methods we seemingly use just now far too often. I’ll admit to looking at it and wondering why on earth it was in any way difficult – but I guess my maths isn’t too sloppy.

So – mastery or death by content?

I know which I’d prefer. I also know darned well which I’ll be getting. And I’m not happy at all.


What we might learn from Vietnam

I’ve been thinking a lot just now about what I do and how I do it.

I’m a teacher, of course. Doing interesting (usually, I hope) things with computers. Which, naturally, changes all the time.

One of the many things that change is the things we have to teach and the ways we have to teach them. Driven by our government – the one that tells us that making schools semi-privatised academies is good because schools know what their kids need best but then turns round and tells us exactly which classes every child has to take.

Just now the thing seems to be knowledge and rigour. Because it’s really good for children who are growing up in the age of Google and embedded computing if you make them learn a whole pile of stuff off by heart. My wife’s been looking at a draft of a GCSE Science syllabus tonight and it looks so content heavy and seems to require so much learning of oh so important facts and laws and equations. My own explorations into the new Computing National Curriculum (with it’s talk of von Neumann architecture in some of the “guidance” – more of that at a later date) have seen the same sort of thing.

Stone age curriculum. How fun…

Which is why I was Quite Interested in an article on the BBC website I caught today about how education has been going in Vietnam of all places. The ideas of developing a “deep understanding of core concepts and mastery of core skills” and “students [who] are expected to leave education not just able to recite what they have learned in class, but to apply those concepts and practices in unfamiliar contexts” seem strangely out of place against learning Newtons Laws by heart or attempting to understand the ways CPUs work.

And both so obvious and so alluring. And, you know, maybe actually fun.

There’s lots of talk of mastery around in our own curriculum of course. But I rather have the feeling that it’s being applied in a context which believes that it means “to know lots about” or “to be able to recite” rather than to have actually mastered a skill or even an idea. Sure, there will be some applied understanding questions on exam papers – but I know, from setting and marking real GCSEs, that these questions can easily turn into ones which reward blank knowledge.

I had a Year 9 child in the back my car this evening. A lift home from cricket. He was discussing with my son how he’d answered some questions on a science test they’d had today. “I knew it was something about that bit of what we’d been taught” he said. “So I just included as many of the key words as I could. Some of them are bound to be right and I’ll get the marks.”

And that’s where a knowledge based curriculum, rather then one which attempts real, deep mastery, gets you.

Maybe I need to move to Vietnam then…

PS – for future reference: