Challenging pupils is a thorny issue. A debate is raging about how to push students. Whether the teacher differentiates, or should the learner adapt and develop their thinking to the subject matter. Whether exposing pupils to a prescribed set of keys can unlock their learning, or whether pupils, with assistance from their teachers and peers, need to find their own key. Whether motivation and gauging success is intrinsic or extrinsic.
The growth mindset terminology has seemingly been enthusiastically adopted at every level of the educational world. But a wind is gently blowing in from the east which is set to upset the mindset.
Too many people have summarised, stripped down and co-opted the original growth mindset ideas for me to do it yet again here, and you can read the UKEdChat feature article on this very point in September 2015.
However, you may not have heard of the mastery by name, but you would have certainly felt its impact and you will hear it everywhere soon. Perhaps comparing the growth mindset mentality (an attitude to challenge) and mastery (a classroom approach) is not fair, but each carries an ethos of values and educators will be trying to marry these two ideas together in their classroom. This article examines whether this is desirable or even possible.
The mastery method of teaching and philosophy of education is based on a notion of how schools in Asia are generically thought to teach. Television programmes, such as the BBC Two documentary Chinese School, have confirmed in the public mind that schools in China are brutal and dispassionate exam factories. Yet many educators and policymakers have seen the possibilities and potential gains of taking some of the advantageous elements of this system into UK schools and has been the basis for many of the changes to the National Curriculum for England.
There are a few problems to address first. I have worked in many schools in China and visited even more, and while the creative spark of students is still tempered compared to in most schools in the UK, China has been moving away from a teacher-focused model for the last two decades. Things have moved on, and it would be the same as representing the English education system today with the National Literacy Strategy and catering for the learning styles of each of your pupils. In fact, China is importing many ideas from the west and group work, creative problem solving and collaborative investigation are common practices. To grossly over generalise, China’s education system is more academically rigorous than the UK, but it is also modernising to improve the social and creative skills of its young people which has been lacking in the past.
However, by far and away the biggest issue is the attribution of success. What you never hear about Chinese education is the work ethic of the culture. The admiration for knowledge and self-improvement has been embedded in the Chinese culture even before Confucius elegantly portrayed it in his great works. As such, the majority of students are intrinsically motivated and their parents, or more often grandparents, ensure this with extrinsic encouragement. This is the reason why Shanghai tops the PISA league tables. However, that doesn’t invalidate the mastery curriculum which has been inspired from this notional eastern system and it may have elements that UK teachers can use in their teaching alongside the other prevailing philosophy, the growth mindset mentality. Just make no mistake that it is not an eastern invention.
Probably the starkest departure from teaching methods often seen in UK schools is the vast reduction or complete absence of differentiation in the purest form of the mastery approach. The rationale has two components: the teacher believes that every child is able to learn anything if the right method is found; differentiation is such a difficult element to get right for all the pupils in your class, and instead, a systematic approach of repeated attempts to unlock understanding should be used for every pupil until the door of understanding is wide open”?
The teacher will come at the lesson objective from many different angles, questioning, prodding, prompting and commenting, so that each pupil have a good chance of accessing and succeeding with one of them. Every child is presented with the same multi-faceted input from the teacher and is given the same resources and expected to meet the same goals. Expectations are high and academic rigour is unyielding. The individual starting points of pupils is largely irrelevant as the cohort has moved through the curriculum together. Therefore the teacher can assume that the majority of the cohort will have the same basic knowledge or skill.
Challenge is of paramount importance in a growth mindset based classroom, yet that challenge is different for each, pupil who are pushed to their personal next level and the lesson is tailored to the individual needs of the pupils. Instead, the mastery students are apprentices seeking enlightenment from the teacher and from their peers. The pupil is expected to adapt to the needs of the learning, rather than the learning being adapted for them, which supporters argue is how things work in the world outside of schools.
Perhaps there are two things to take away from this. Firstly, that instant, real-time and continual assessment for learning is essential for the teacher to know what is working and which doors remain closed. Secondly, no child is left behind. The teacher and students will continue to work towards and returning to the goal, attempting different approaches to explain and learn the subject matter or skill until every pupil has reached the goal. Therefore the class move through the curriculum together with the students who master the lesson quicker helping their peers to succeed. However, this does raise interesting questions for the provision for students with specific and profound special needs where particular barriers to learning need to be addressed if the mastery ethos is to be used. The mastery mentality is to believe that any student can progress and understand anything if the right key is found.
A fundamental aspect of mastery is the depth of study. Critics of the previous National Curriculum for England have observed a shallowness of some areas of learning and the new curriculum has been developed to provide deeper learning. ‘Fewer things in greater depth’ has been the battle cry. The introduction of the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar strands and tests at primary schools is just one example of this. A growth mindset mentality is completely complimentary to delving deeper into a subject or skill set, as the direction of learning is not important, but one’s attitude to it when a challenge or stumbling block is met.
Failure is treated very differently in each system. Where failure is seen in both systems as something that is expected, the response to failure by teachers and the students themselves is very different. In the mastery system, a wrong answer is met with a blunt response – “wrong!” There is no sugar coating or evangelising of failure, and the philosophy is one of neutrality and an error is simply not a success. In classrooms with a growth mindset, mistakes and errors are seen as inevitable steps along the way to success, with the mantra of “You haven’t got it right… yet” cheering pupils on to the next opportunity to succeed.
A hot topic for debate in education is the role of praise in the classroom. Praise is something we do naturally in everyday life and it can be a difficult tool to tame as a result. The growth mindset mentality does not stipulate much about its use, other than if it is used it should refer to the effort of the pupil, not the work or the pupil. However, in the mastery analytical language is used to common where the pupil needs to improve and what the next steps are to master the skill or concept. Therefore praise is not used at all and praise is seen as something that needy students might get accumulatively addicted to, rather than the real purpose of improvement.
An important part of the mastery approach is that the pupils should see the teacher as a scholar and a role model of learning. It would seem very unconformable to many of us, but mastery teachers are expected to inspire their students through demonstrations of their own skill and knowledge as something for the students to aspire to, but only if they work hard enough. The students will be invited to attempt a similar feat.
Ultimately, the fundamental ethos of the mastery and growth mindset philosophies in their purest form are incompatible. The mastery mindset attempts to completely master a skill, fact or activity, whereas a growth mindset believes that on
We can never truly master something, as there is always something new to learn about it and one is simply on a one stepping stone along the learning journey. Yet, like many educational ideas and methods, there is a time a place for almost any approach. Polarised views lead to entrenched dogma and elements of both philosophies can improve the learning of our pupils, along with the myriad of other techniques, ideas and approaches that teachers use from their toolbox every day.
There are no barriers to learning and improvement that cannot be overcome with determination and the drive to continue.
This article was originally published in the January 2016 Edition of our UKEdMagazine