Developmentalism vs mastery: should teachers be ‘flinging mud at the wall’?

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

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    • No early years or KS1 teacher I know would refute this, it is basic knowledge and fundamental to teacher training in reading. However developmentalism IS relevant too, as well as children’s backgrounds and early experiences. Quite simply some children read competently as early as four while others take much longer. The teacher often has nothing to do with that, but it is a fact.

      Emotional aspects of learning also come into play. Humans are not machines, and teachers are not either. So please treat these things with some nuance, it is not a X vs Y scenario.

      Perhaps teachers of older children need either a reminder or some cpd on it.

  1. I don’t think the two ways are mutually incompatible. Learning is developmental but teaching tactics must of course be thought through to make sure the development does take place.

    Heather writes:
    “Did the students get enough exposure/repetition/practice/testing to ensure they will remember what they have learnt in the long term?” and yet earlier she seems to imply that simple exposure and repetition is not necessarily enough (eg “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”). I question whether “testing” is a tool for teaching…. So that leaves us with her last brilliant idea: practice…..

    Yes, choosing an expression like flinging mud at the wall certainly signposted her attitude. So does the choice of sandplay….which is not larking about, it helps the understanding of concepts. And can be used as a good teaching tool.

    Her attitude I get, an idea of her actual teaching method, as distinct from the developmentalists she clearly despises, I have not been helped to see.

    • Heather Fearn

      While clearly we disagree at a fundamental level (i.e. have noticeably different beliefs about learning) I’m afraid the editing of this article did me no service as I am far from thinking that teachers have entirely one mindset or another.

      Of course some children will arrive at school at very different stages but the question is stages of WHAT? If, as develpmentalists presume, they are at a different stage of brain maturation or different stages of ’emotional readiness to learn’ then the solution will be very different from if one presumes that the children arrive with different levels of prior knowlege. Not only does the evidence we have suggest that learning is not developmental in anyway that can be used by a classroom teacher to inform teaching decisions but the presumption does nothing to aid analysis of what that child needs to learn next if they are to learn to read etc. The assumptions the teacher will lead to widely different approaches. There is also a chasm between the assumptions of a teacher planning repetition or practice to aid memory and retention and a teacher giving up on some kids being able to learn the material that year and crossing their fingers that they’ll learn next year because they’ll have got a bit older when it wil probably be presented just the same.

      Too often developmentalist arguments seem to be non sequiturs. Of course there is an emotional aspect to learning But developmentalists go on to make a range of assumptions about the role of emotion in learning that are highly questionable. While of course emotion or motivation are important as we are human not machines it does not follow that (as developmentalists often assert) that, for example, a child can’t learn to read until they reach a certain stage of emotional maturity or that the methods advocated by developmetalists actually succeed in developing emotional maturity anyway.

  2. Debra Kidd

    No there are not two teaching mindsets, any more than there are two parenting mindsets, doctor mindsets, human mindsets…. So tired of this binary nonsense being peddled in education.

  3. Pippa Commander

    Great to find you in a professional context Heather! The misery of the cyclical MFL curriculum… I am trying to find an alternative solution; do you know of anyone else working on a solution?