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Talking of Mastery. What is it all about?

Eddie Hannifan explores the concept of Mastery and asks: “So who has mastered being an outstanding teacher?”

Mastery is one of the keys areas that gets looked at in great detail on the OTP PLUS; along with other widely used, but complex, areas of practice, such as metacognition and self-regulation – ideas, words, concepts, areas of practice, that have become far more widely used and embedded in the psyche of practitioners because of the work of the EEF and the Teachers Toolkit. Mastery, however, is a bit of an odd one because there’s quite a narrow remit. 

You quite often hear of things such as maths mastery, such as the Singapore method (refer to blog: “Mastery? Yeah, we covered that.”) However, the OTP PLUS programme deliberately tries to take a step away from the application of mastery to understand what it is about. Whether it’s a teaching approach, in the way ‘How’ we teach (mastery teaching). Or alternatively, whether it’s more an indication of the success of teaching well, i.e. something has been mastered if it has been properly learnt; and, therefore, what good teaching equates to that being properly learnt well. We need to look at what are the blockers and what are the challenges to doing that?

How do we teach?

The other conversation we have about it is whether mastery is the technical pursuit of how we teach. Breaking subject matter right down so that little bits are properly acquired before moving on. Is this what mastery is about? A sort of technical approach to teaching. Or, is it a moral pursuit, where we are setting children up to fail if we don’t ensure that they have properly learnt the fundamentals of being a successful person? I could look at this as a geography teacher and ask; do my students properly understand areas of knowledge, concepts and skills to be a successful geographer? Do they really know their subject so they can get an A*. Or, are we talking about life chances? If certain fundamental areas of the curriculum haven’t been mastered – I’m talking about literacy and numeracy here – we limit the ability to apply it. 

We know something has been mastered when?

The first questions we ask on the OTP PLUS on mastery is: “We know something has been mastered when?….”. It is really interesting to see immediately what people write down. It’s the visual symptoms of when you know something has happened; you’ll see people play with things, they show-off with things, they can mess about with it and apply their knowledge here, there and everywhere. They get it. It has become innate. It has become part of them.

So, what are the absolute things, morally speaking, that children and teenagers need to have properly become at one with so that they can succeed later on? The big push for people talking about this is that it’s all about the kids: ‘How do we encourage children to master stuff?’ ‘How can we encourage children to better self-regulate?’ ‘How do we encourage children to become more aware of their own thinking processes?’

Can the teachers do it for themselves first?

Our position has always been: “Can the teachers do it for themselves first?” If we expect our children to be great learners, are the teachers themselves modelling what it is to be a great learner? Mastery is the same. We have this conversation with our delegates: “To be an outstanding teacher, what are the things that you need to have mastered? How do you model that to others? Does it mean that you have got there? And, have you finished learning?” Then we explore how you balance something up with: Yes, I’ve mastered a certain level of practice, but I’m still growing on it; rather than, I am there. Done. I’ve finished. I’ve learnt everything there is to know – which would fly in the face of the conversation.

Part of the bigger conversation

The Mastery session is the penultimate session the OTP PLUS programme and it is essentially the pinnacle, or apex, of bigger conversations. If the OTP is the beginning of a conversation with professionals about how to be, and how to act, and how to work with others as an outstanding teacher; the OTP PLUS continues that conversation. The session about Mastery is essentially the culmination of everything. So, who has mastered being an outstanding teacher? No one has. It’s complicated. How do we do this for our kids? Well, before anything else, lets do it for ourselves first.