Mastery Principles that Work for Everyone

The idea of ‘mastery teaching’ has been an educational buzzword for some time, but what does it really mean and what can every teacher learn from its principles?

Put simply, mastery is an approach that involves moving through curriculum content at a pace that allows secure and deep learning Master Yodato take place. This means taking complex concepts and breaking them down into lots of small sequential steps. Unlike the prevalent model in schools, all pupils are expected to study all of the same content; there are no topics or concepts that are ‘reserved’ for the most able. Crucially, mastery teaching of a concept goes beyond the point that pupils can achieve ‘the right answer’, and aims to develop deeper and stronger understanding. (there is quite a good definition here along with some research into impact).

Despite it’s strengths, it is worth noting that mastery teaching is a concept drawn from the teaching of Maths in Shanghai schools, and actually there are some significant challenges with applying it to other subject areas. This is one reason (particularly as an English teacher) that I’ve tended to overlook it in the past. But a recent talk at the SSAT Leading Edge conference made me think differently about mastery: this blog is about principles and teaching methods that I think are easily applicable to a broad range of subject areas.

Here they are:

1. Precise language

This is similar to an idea we’ve championed before where we insist pupils answer in full sentences. My suggestion is that we go further than this and challenge pupils to develop clear and detailed explanations of their learning, drawing on key terminology where appropriate. There is a strong focus on explaining learning and metacognition in mastery teaching and we know that the educational impact of this is huge (see here). In short, the real test should not be about arriving at the right answer, but being able to explain how.

2 . Remove focus on answers

Linked to the above, how can we find ways to place more emphasis on thought processes and less on the correct answers? A phrase used at the conference was “The answer is only the beginning”. Learning will be deeper and more secure in classrooms where this philosophy is adopted. Can the pupil explain the learning articulately? Can they spot errors in an incorrect answer and fix them? Can they teach others?

3. Extend through challenge over advancement

The questions posed above are perhaps better success criteria for pupils’ learning than traditional measures. So when pupils ‘finish’, challenge them to be able to do these things. Alternatively, take the same concept and make it more complex. The aim is to develop deeper learning rather than broader

4. Build learning through questioning

The same applies to the way we use questioning in the classroom. Should we be thinking more about how to force better descriptions of learning? I have found the following sorts of instructions helpful in the classroom  when a pupil gives an explanation that needs development: justify, elaborate, convince me, challenge that idea.

5.  Pre-teaching homework

Linked to the mastery principle of covering topics once, ask pupils to revise previous content if they need it in the following lesson. This avoids wasted time reteaching concepts at the beginning of a lesson and makes pupils more accountable for making sure they know what they need to.

6. Increased modelling 

Studies of mastery teaching talk about making sure pupils get glimpses of expert practice throughout the learning process. It is important to model outcomes, written or otherwise, both to inspire pupils and make the expectations clear. As always, modelling at an appropriate level is important: it should be aspirational but attainable for the pupils in the class.

7. The kite method

This was referred to in the conference as common practice in Chinese classrooms and essentially involves giving pupils more freedom to generate ideas at the beginning of learning (letting out the kite), but then reeling them back in and teaching the best or most efficient way afterwards. The principle here seems to be that it is good for pupils to explore alternative methods and ideas, but equally for pupils to be given clear instruction about what works best and why.


In short, whilst the mastery approach is a ready made solution for raising achievement in Maths, this doesn’t mean that non-mathematicians should overlook it completely. There is much to be gained from slowing down learning and making sure concepts are fully embedded before moving on.


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