Mastery of What?

The trouble with schools is that they find it hard to come out of their comfort zones.  A valid point was raised by Professor Chris Taylor of Cardiff University, concerning my last blog regarding the new Welsh curriculum.  He commented that if there were any critique of it, it would more likely focus upon what I didn’t say rather than what I said.   For example, where do mastery and structured learning come into this?   It’s an interesting question, and I’ve spent an age trying to figure out the best way to explain my thoughts regarding this.

My initial reaction when I first heard what the AOLEs were going to be,  was disappointment; I wondered why a curriculum which was being hailed as something radically different and forward thinking, opted to place the old subjects back in the centre again.   And then when the draft specifications for each AOLE came out a couple of weeks ago, I could see the potential.  However, I still had (and still do have) concerns regarding the inclusion of the same subjects, especially if this is what our assessment at the end of KS4 will focus on (We’ll have to watch this space for the time being).

This concern has led me to explore the reasons for my fear of including the same old subjects.   It led me to re-look (I did a Philosophy of Education MA many, many years ago) at the work of Richard Peters and Paul Hirst in the ‘60s and early ‘70s where they explored the notion of forms of knowledge.   Although they had been with us since the start of the 20th Century more or less as they are now, Hirst and Peter’s philosophical discourse did much to cement the subjects we still hold dear to us today, into our curriculum.  There’s a good summary of their work here. 

What I took away from this was a reminder that the subjects we have, are in themselves are good, and in Hirst and Peter’s own words, the knowledge they give us enables us to ‘live the good life’.  However, as Peters pointed out “We would not call a man who was merely well informed an educated man. He must also have some understanding of the ‘reason why’ of things” (Peters 1966: Ethics and Education). Peters goes on to say: “There is very little to know about riding bicycles, swimming, or golf. It is largely a matter of “knowing how” rather than of “knowing that”; knack rather than of understanding. 

We would expect, therefore, (and thankfully, it is there in the new curriculum) an expectation that when we develop mastery in subjects, we are developing and accessing our students in the following ways:

  • Knowing the root knowledge which underpins the subject
  • Application of the subject within authentic scenarios
  • Critical understanding of the rationale and values which underpin these scenarios and other manifestations of the subject in real life. 

The need to develop mastery is still obviously there. However, the pedagogy required to fully attain mastery, as I mentioned above, needs to take on a 21st Century context. There has to be an acceptance that young people can develop their knowledge through the web and are increasingly using online tutorial aids, and with this acceptance, teachers will need to be trained to apply a new pedagogy.  

Very briefly (I will describe this in more detail in a future “21st Century Imperative blog), teachers will have to accept themselves as just another resource amongst many resources to develop mastery in subjects.  However, they are a powerful resource, which can be the sage on the stage when required, the personal assistant/facilitator and the quality assurance/accountability overseer.  If learning is to become authentic and meaningful teachers will also have to work far more in collaboration with each other, developing real-life tasks or projects (aimed at fulfilling Donaldson’s 4 purposes), which use subject areas as tools to deliver the outcomes of these tasks and projects.  

In this scenario, teachers:

  • identify the difficult concepts within the projects and become the sage on the stage if necessary.  Perhaps one teacher with particular expertise delivering to more than one group
  • become facilitators, keeping students on task, asking questions which will inspire them to dig deeper and being a critical friend
  • become personal assistants, holding small group or individual tutorials where work can be assessed, and next steps agreed. 
  • collaborate and work together, where three teachers may divide themselves up at any one time into one holding a lecture to a small group, while another facilitates a large group working on their tasks, rotating students into the lecture.  Another will be taking individuals or small ‘teams’ out at a time to provide a tutorial. 

Even in the model described above, we are in danger of focussing on mastery of our prescribed traditional subjects.  Granted, this model will go a long way to developing full mastery (the knowing ‘how’ and ‘why’ as well as the knowing ‘that’) in these subject areas, but is this the sole purpose of schooling? 

Surely in the 21st Century, schools have to be so much more if we are to make it into the 22nd Century.   Donaldson’s 4 Purposes go a long way to guiding us along the route we should take; therefore, they have to be at the forefront of our new curriculum.  Yes, our subjects provide the essential tools we need to help us understand our world, but it is working towards mastery of the 4 purposes (perhaps mastery is not the right term in this context) that will enable us and the environments/communities we inhabit to flourish.    

I fear this will involve at the very least, a 10-year programme (probably 20) of re-training, changing mindsets (of educational professionals as well as the wider public) and developing a pedagogy fit for the 21st Century.  Will our generation have the resilience to see it through? 

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