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Mastery? Yeah, we covered that.

Chris McGeehan, Jariram Lead OLEVI Facilitator and OLEVI Professional Coach shares how watching a Jujitsu class led him to refect on the role of Mastery in teaching and learning.

A lot of people have been talking about mastery recently. There seems to be strong links to the Singapore teaching method. Colleagues who have experienced training in this (usually Maths) talk about students in rows being drilled: loads of repetition, zero interaction, zero fun, zero chance of going off down some tangent, because the teacher just needs to ensure that everyone has truly grasped this one specific thing. 

Quickly, people start to comment on the cultural plausibility of this becoming a reality. 

“If your school day is ten hours long and the students are totally motivated, this will work, but it won’t work if you have disaffected British kids who couldn’t care less…”

And sometimes this is where the reflection ends, because someone may have concluded that this is an aspiration not worth entertaining, let alone truly unpicking in order to assimilate the benefits into their context/practice. As a result little changes. 

I watched my son during a Jujitsu class a few weeks ago and it became very obvious that I was watching a highly polished learning system, based on mastery, which was fun. To progress to the next belt, the pupils must demonstrate all the moves with a high degree of precision. They must know the names and understand some theory (otherwise the wrist lock or choke would really injure/damage some kid). The students are then asked to spar – fight each other using the skills and techniques they’ve demonstrated they’ve learned in isolation. In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, one might argue that this lives somewhere between ‘application’ and perhaps ‘synthesis’, i.e. they are having to combine their knowledge and understanding of the techniques they want to use whilst someone else is trying to attack them, leading to counter moves, combination approaches, etc. 

If the student is able to perform the moves, demonstrate understanding of the theory and spar competently, they are awarded that grade/belt. If there are a few slip-ups, inaccuracies or minor faults, the student may only ‘half grade’ – this means that they might be awarded a tag for their belt but they don’t progress to the next level; they will continue to work on the same moves/techniques as before until they are truly mastered. 

The students line up in grade order. Some of the students seem to progress quickly – they earn a new belt every time they grade. Other students progress slowly, some taking a year to achieve their next belt. The ‘lefty’ in me tells me that this is horrible, and self-esteem and confidence must really take blow when students are left behind. Another side of me (must it be the ‘righty’ side?) says it would be ridiculous for someone to be looking at the black belt (Dan grade; apparently those in the know don’t say black belt) syllabus until the more basic skills and techniques are learned properly or mastered. 

Differentiating our teaching styles, the tasks set and the levels of support we provide has become the norm in a lot of teaching that goes on. What would your classroom look like if it was led by a Jujitsu Sensei? What would the school day look like if this was the approach? What would graduation look like? 

Just a thought…