Is mastery just a passing fad?

    Published: 14 November 2016

    Nicola Randall, Mathematics Teaching and Learning Adviser at Herts for Learning

    Before I even start to tackle this question, I think it is helpful to clarify what we mean by ‘fad’ and the best way I could think of doing this was to consider some examples.

    • Leg warmers worn anywhere other than inside a dance studio: fad
    • No make-up selfies: fad
    • Replacing actual laughing with the word “LOL”: fad
    • Dressing as clowns and scaring people: fad

    leg-warmers-mastery-1_0.jpgThe one element that all of these examples have in common is that over time, the hype dies down, they become boring due to their over-use and eventually most unfashionable – until enough time has passed that one can then consider it retro and therefore fashionable once more. Hopefully this won’t be the case with the clowns. Although I am always open to bringing back the leg warmers!

    So let’s now consider some examples linked to education and pedagogy. Remember the days when classrooms were covered in VAK displays and Brain Gym could be seen happening in every classroom across the country? I would also consider these to be fads, as they are no longer seen as best practice due to new research. However, the principles underpinning them remain alive and well in classrooms – it is just labelled as something else. Do we still consider varying our style of presentation to motivate and engage all learners? Yes. Do we aim to keep the young minds in our class active by encouraging physical movement alongside learning? Yes. So the principles of Brain Gym and VAK live on.

    Let’s turn our attention to the question in hand: Is mastery just a passing fad? Mastery is and always has been a pedagogical approach to the teaching and learning of maths. As Mark McCourt mentions in his rather emotive blog post ‘#masteryfail: common misconceptions about maths mastery’, mastery is a pedagogy dating way back to Aristotle and underpins all good teaching. It is not a programme with set procedures and resources, despite what some publishers would like to make you think. There are some curriculums which lend themselves more readily to a mastery approach, but the truth is, even a spiral curriculum can follow the principles of mastery, if carefully thought through.

    Often I hear schools referring to the NCETM mastery assessment ‘broadening and deepening’ questions as ‘mastery’. They are not. They are, however, helpful for teachers to consider how a rich problem can be used for formative assessment opportunities. There is no such thing as a ‘mastery question’. It is how these problems are used that will determine whether it fits within a mastery approach or not. All good maths lessons have an element of mastery in them. It just depends on the skills of the individual teacher as to how this impacts positively on learning.

    To help make my point clear, in the following two examples, I aim to unpick some pedagogical practises that are not in keeping with mastery and explore why this is, focusing on the underlying principles rather than what we see on the surface.

    1.Ability grouping and setting

    What are the underlying principles? In this example, it all comes down to having high expectations of all pupils. As discussed in Rachel Rayner’s recent blog article ‘Why dodecahedrons hate CPA’ labelling children as the ‘circles group’ can cap learning and alter attitudes relating to what these pupils are capable of. So it is not the setting in itself that is the non-mastery element. It is, in fact, the low expectations that occur once pupils are given these labels.

    Pupils are taught through whole-class interactive teaching, where the focus is on all pupils working together on the same lesson content at the same time

    The essence of maths teaching for mastery: NCETM

    Documents like this continue to exacerbate the myth that mastery is about a set way of teaching maths and that some practices are good and others are bad. The advice should not really be to ‘teach as a whole class’. It should be that mastery in its truest form means that teachers are continually aware of how their teaching can accelerate, deepen or limit learning in maths and as such, adopt a flexible approach to teaching which results in success for all pupils.

    2. Not using concrete resources in KS2

    What are the underlying principles? This is all about multi-representation and a focus on conceptual understanding. Again, it is not really the concrete resources that are the issue. It is that teachers in KS2, who are not using a range of concrete and pictorial representations, are forgetting that it is not the type of representation that is indicative of the child’s understanding, but the ability to ‘translate’ between these models (Bruner). They have misinterpreted what challenge looks like in maths and are focused on off-loading content, rather than developing deep conceptual understanding. As a result, pupils are not secure with the concept – they survive maths lessons through looking for patterns and working procedurally. I see this in reality often in Y5 classes with pupils who have not had sufficient chance to fully understand that our place value system increases by powers of 10. When they multiply or divide by 10,100 and 1000, they revert to a procedure of adding zeros (if they can remember, that is).

    So, as we have explored, the real issue always boils down to the impact upon learning. Not whether it is fashionable or the next big thing from Singapore. Using manipulatives can sometimes be seen as a fad due to the emphasis put on certain brands. But as you may have heard our team often state ‘there’s no magic in the plastic’. An inanimate resource, cannot in itself have any miraculous powers beyond the teachers and pupils who use it (Delaney K 2001). How true this is. The impact of the resource completely depends on the skills of the person using it and so in this situation, the use of manipulatives could only be seen as a passing fad if in fact they were not being used effectively. In which case, the application of CPA theory (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract) is most definitely not a fad.

    To summarise, mastery in its true form is most certainly not a passing fad. It is the essence of strong teaching which will continue to thrive in schools where it is respected for the pedagogical approach that it is. The mutant version of mastery popping up in schools where pupils ‘do’ mastery however is most definitely a fad.

    But don’t worry, like leg warmers and killer clowns, it will pass.


    Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review.

    Delaney K in Gates (2001) Issues in Mathematics Education, London: Routledge Falmer

    ‘#Masteryfail: Common Misconceptions about Maths Mastery’ Mark McCourt (28th September 2016)

    NCETM The essence of maths teaching for Mastery (June 2016)

    NCETM Mastery Assessment Documents

    Rachel Rayner (2016) Why dodecahedrons hate CPA

    Contact Details

    Latest blogs

    Receive our latest posts direct to your inbox...