Should teachers ‘fling mud at the wall’ or should they follow a mastery approach, asks Heather Fearn

There are two teaching mindsets. First, there are those teachers that expose children to the curriculum and assume they will learn it when they are capable. They might suggest a child is not developmentally ready to learn letter sounds; that their family circumstances explain their struggle to understand osmosis; they were congenitally incapable of remembering how to conjugate the verb ‘avoir’; or they are just not bright enough to appreciate the causes of World War One.

At the end of year 1, Elsa, the daughter of a friend of mine, was really struggling with maths. The teacher took this first approach, often labelled “developmentalist”. Elsa’s difficulties were seen as evidence that she was simply “learning at a slower pace” or possibly had dyscalculia. In early years, the developmentalist teacher might assume that if some children fail to learn as much as others, this is evidence they are not “ready” to learn. So if a child is struggling with year 1 maths, perhaps she should still be playing with the sand tray. This leads to the presumption children should only be taught material deemed to be “developmentally appropriate”.

It is harmful to wait to teach children until they seem “ready” to learn

The cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains there is some consistency across children in their ways of thinking at different ages, but that such thinking is so task-dependent that trends cannot be used to dictate classroom practice. He also suggests it is harmful to wait to teach children until they seem “ready” to learn, because their understanding won’t develop from “a magical process of brain maturation”, but in fits and starts, as they gradually learn the prior knowledge necessary to understand new concepts.

Willingham was right about Elsa. It turned out that she had somehow missed out on that most basic idea of “one more”. A few days of teaching was all that was needed to give her access to year 1 maths. A few more years of the sand tray would only have left her further behind her peers. The problem with developmentalist assumptions is that they can lead the well-meaning teacher to blame the child’s weaknesses for their learning failure when it is the instruction that needs to change.

At upper primary and secondary level, the developmentalist teacher faced with a struggling child has to try to teach the material, which leads to what I (rather uncharitably) call the “flinging mud at the wall” approach. You keep teaching the child presuming that when they become “ready” some of the learning will stick, and you accept that many children will go through your lessons not understanding as much as others. At secondary level these assumptions are clear to see in maths and modern foreign languages, where spiral curriculums allow the re-teaching of topics each year in the hope that with repetition and maturation, more of what has been taught will gradually stick.

What about the second type of teacher? They tend to assume any failure of pupils is either because they lack the necessary prior knowledge to build new understanding, or because the teaching has not provided adequate explanation or practice. Despite the misuse of the term, the best description of this teacher’s approach is “mastery mindset”. Such teachers consciously plan to ensure all children “master” the material at the level intended – to allow subsequent learning. Elsa lacked necessary knowledge and this was quite possibly because explanation and practice were insufficient.

Sometimes it is the instruction that needs to change

With a “mastery mindset” the teacher asks questions such as:

  What prior knowledge is necessary to understand this new idea?

  Are there smaller steps I can use to build towards this new learning?

  How can I make my explanation clearer?

  Did the students get enough exposure/repetition/practice/testing to ensure they will remember what they have learnt in the long term?

A teacher has countless pressures and constraints that may mean they are unable to provide each child with the necessary knowledge, explanation and practice. However, what is the use of a mindset that focuses on the reasons children can’t learn? I’ve found that when I start asking the questions above, invariably children can learn far more than I previously assumed.

Heather Fearn is education blogger at Esse Quam Videri