What’s this all about?

A rather unimaginative title for my first blog post on this site, but it is an attempt to summarise some of the thoughts and discussions about Mastery (in Science) yesterday on Twitter, so that people can comment on the questions and points raised.

Please do comment!

Not an expert

Personally, I am no authority on Mastery, and I’m not an experienced “Mastery practitioner” (if there is such a thing). I have become increasingly interested in the approach this year as I have seen and heard what others have to say about it. Mastery is something we’ll be discussing at our Cognition in Science Forum in July,  partly to try and pin down what exactly it is, and how it can be used effectively in Science teaching.

So this post arises from a conversation between teachers, most of whom (I think) would not describe themselves as “experts” (although we did have input from some people that would certainly be categorised in this way). However, we are all really interested in reading about approaches to Science teaching that are rooted in research. You can see some of the links we’ve collated on Mastery here.

Again, from a personal perspective, I haven’t explicitly applied “a Mastery approach” to my teaching very much up until now. However, having discussed it more with others, I would say that some of the things I have done as a matter of course would perhaps allign with the approach. As I have become increasingly interested in Mastery, I’ve begun to concentrate a bit more on the drilling aspect of (for example) calculation-based questions, but this is someting I’m looking to develop more in the future. You can see some of the resources Science teachers have produced on this page.

Comments and Questions

I would really appreciate thoughts on the following:

  1. Can you point us to any suitable sources of reading on Mastery?
  2. What is mastery? Are we in danger of applyinging it to too many things? Is it just “good teaching”?
  3. Should the Mastery approach be used in Science?
  4. If so, how should Mastery be used in Science? Which aspects does it/ doesn’t it work for?
  5. What are the key difficulties with applying a Mastery approach to Science teaching?
  6. What resources are needed? Are there any good examples out there that you could point us to?
  7. Can you suggest any aspects of the Science curriculum that really lend themselves to being deconstructed, practised and then re-combined?

Also, as I’ve said above, I do not count myself as an expert, and it might be that others have looked at all this before, and I am just repeating questions (with answers) that have been raised previously. If so, please do point me to them!

Summary of discussion

I haven’t attributed the comments and questions summarised here, just for simplicity. Obviously if i’ve screenshotted a tweet, you can obviously see who said it. Other than that, I’ve just tried to extract the points that were made.

What is mastery?

I’ve summarised some of the points and questions that were raised about what Mastery is. We talked about whether it is in danger of being used too much, and whether it’s simply a description of “good teaching” (assessing what students know, practising what they don’t, and not moving on until all have “mastered” a particular aspect of the curriculum).

A definition: Mastery is breaking down key skills and focusing on the long term.

A difficulty in Science: Repetitive skill building is hard to carry out in Science, apart from with maths/ formula work. Is it therefore difficult to apply mastery to Science?

What about Variation Theory? Does this offer any answers? You could perhaps summarise it as pulling an aspect of the curriculum apart into component parts, and then teaching these component parts separately, before re-combining. For example, teaching the key concepts needed to build another concept. This might help us to define its utility beyond maths-type questions. (For me, this also brought to mind the “Hurdles and Bottlenecks” I’d identified when I was looking at Threshold Concepts in Chemistry).

Key question: Maybe mastery works for explanations, but not descriptions? eg. For questions like: What is a plasmid? What is sustainable development? it is tricky to develop “mastery”,  but this might be because you don’t actually need to? Just concentrate on retrieval practice?

Then Deep raised this point: Are we in danger of turning “Mastery approach” into a noun that is (over) used unthinkingly and its utility diluted.

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So we did talk a bit about what we mean by the term. Whether labels were actually necessary. And whether mastery is drilling, or drilling is just an aspect of achieving mastery.

Is Mastery just “good teaching”?

So amidst the discussion about procedural knowledge, this striaghtforward definition:

I’ve always understood Mastery to mean diagnostic Qs and re-teaching those points which questioning shows are not known. Only move on then.

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The importance of subject specialists and careful planning is reinforced later. It is only in the past few years that I have really begun to appreciate the impotance of really good curriculum design, and this is one example. The mastery approach (whatever we decide it is) relies on subject-specific expertise. You need to know “where you’re going”, who you’re going to get there, how you’re going to know when you’re there, and how you’re going to ensure that everyone has got there with you.

So this is perhaps where all the resources come in. Mastery booklets, for example, are tools that facilitate practice, diagnosis and questioning. Because if you don’t give students multiple chances to practise what you’ve taught them, they won’t achieve mastery.

Key question

What resources do we need to apply mastery approach effectively? What do we have already? What are we crying out for more of ?

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Key Question

So if we want to deconstruct, practice and master (and then reconstruct) aspects of the curriuculum, then maybe the question is: which aspects of the Science curriculum do we want to do this with? And how do we pull it apart? What are the components?

Drilling- what, why and how

A key aspect of mastery is also the idea of increasing automaticity before moving on. This is where the idea of drilling comes in.

Key idea: drilling is carefully changing a feature (of pradcice/ teaching) in order to isolate its effect against the background previously secured.

Careful planning and constructive criticism

One of the most useful aspects of these kinds of discussions is that people will scrutinise what others have done and offer constructive criticism/ suggestions. The tweets I’ve summarised below are a really good example of just this.

Kris thought there was too much variation in the worksheet that had been shared, but he offered this suggestion.

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So then another teacher asked for clarification of the term variation. Kris shared this reference to help explain it, and the original teacher (who shared the first questions) fed back again with thanks for the input and highlighting the importance of careful planning for this kind of approach.

We are starting to gather example of resources Science teachers have produced to facilitate mastery on this page, and we would appreciate comments and suggestions.

Why mastery in Science?

So finally,  a few thoughts on how and why we might use this approach in Science. What to you think?


Is there a distinction between the way we teach procedural knowledge. explanations and facts? (And what is the distinction between these? How do we define how to categorise knowledge?)

More thoughts on what we mean by mastery and how we can apply it to Science teaching (and which aspects we would apply it to).

And finally, a good summary of why Mastery Science teaching, and in particular Physics teaching, is distinct from other subjects. Do you agree?

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Huge thanks to the following people, whose ideas I have tried to summarise here. Apologies if I have missed any key aspects, misunderstood anything, or given too little credit for anything! Do let me know if so… @DSGhataura, @adamboxer1, @Rosalindphys Walker, @stickyphysics, @MrBlachford, @Mr_Raichura, @Kris_Boulton, @ChrisMcGrane84, @teachingofsci