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What does “mastery learning” mean for language teachers?

This is a guest blog by teacher Mick Heseltine-Wells who works at the Kings’ School, Al Barsha, Dubai. He and his department have been looking at ways of improving their practice by considering the notion of mastery learning. They have chosen to link this in particular with the teaching of grammar and have come up with their own action points for the future. His Twitter handle is @mickheswells nad his school can be found at @KSABMFL.

Do get in touch with me if you have something interesting to share. My email is spsmith45@aol.com.

‘Mastery’ – what is it? How can it be achieved in MFL? Well, that is a question my second in department (@SenoritaUskova) and I were asked to present about to SLT recently. Not an easy task. However, one which, has really shaped our thinking on our French and Spanish course content, particularly at KS3, and also ignited a desire to explore this issue even further.

In the early stages of research on the topic it soon became apparent that mastery in MFL is not an area which can be easily defined. If you look at the French and Spanish dictionary definitions, for example, mastery is about technical dominance and being able to teach somebody something. The French and Spanish translation for Mastery is also the same word for a Master’s Degree. Does this help us in understanding how to facilitate Mastery for a year 7 novice? Maybe, not.

On a timely weekend browse around a well-known book shop, I appropriately came across Mastery by Robert Greene which I set about reading at a record rate. Greene states how mastery, even though a current education buzz-word, has been around for thousands of years, ever since skilled trades were given importance. A master would be the person teaching the apprentices, who themselves followed a 7 year course. Perhaps obviously, drawing on brief biographies of world renowned Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Mozart, Greene reiterates that real mastery requires dedication, quiet reflection and access to other experts. Apprentices would often not speak much but repeat and practice for days on end. Often real Masters would overtake their teachers and better their work. The crux is that, to become a Master, time is needed. Lots of it. 10,000 dedicated hours.

Now, unfortunately, even the most MFL friendly SLTs are not going to be able to provide that kind of timetable! Like professional football managers, time is something often not given to educators in 21st century. So, how can we strive for mastery in this time restrictive results driven climate?

In order to focus our thinking on developing mastery in our secondary school context, the words of Ian Bauckham, former President of the ASCL and Head teacher provided clarity and a practical way forward. He believes that ‘depth’ is the key to mastery and that ‘Building expertise through extensive and intellectually challenging practice is far more important than covering a lot of topics’. Now, we felt, we were getting somewhere.

On bringing these thoughts to a department meeting our discussion naturally led to ‘grammar’ and ‘using grammar accurately in a range of contexts’. The students’ capabilities to then apply this grammatical knowledge to all four skills would lead to what we then labelled ‘age-related mastery’. The earlier the exposure to grammatical concepts, along with reinforcement and practice, the better. Get it right at year 7, if not earlier, then the knock on effect higher up the school will be tangible.

Liza, the second in department, a keen reader on a wide range of topics, reiterated that grammar in languages is the ‘threshold concept’ i.e the fundamental component that students need ‘to get’ in order to master the subject. Reassuringly, the research and discussion did not make us feel like SLT were asking us to do work for the sake of the most recent educational whim; as can sometimes be the case. The whole department really bought into the idea that to develop capable linguists we must strive for mastery, all be it age-related. If each department in the school had the same philosophy, as is the intention, then the whole school will benefit.

So, basically, our ideas, in no particular order, going forward are these:

1) To change the MFL specific success criteria for the school wide ‘flightpath’ system (common in many schools). Our assessment grade descriptors for ‘Excellence’ would be made more challenging, with a need for grammatical application and accuracy required for students to achieve ‘Excellence’ in Year 7, 8 and 9 assessments.
2) To review schemes of work, with an eye on KS4 exam syllabuses, highlighting:
a)topics which do not need to be covered in detail b) grammatical concepts which do.
3) Further develop resources which practise grammar in an engaging way i.e battleships, Connect4, running dictations and use of dice.
4) Monitor staff usage of the department marking symbols which promote grammatical accuracy and self-regulation.
5) Rewrite some assessments in order that mastery is a goal and possibility for all.
6) Research new technologies and websites to compliment current favourites such as languagesonline.org.uk
7) Capture and subsequently share good practice examples of mastery gathered in lesson observations and book monitoring.

Potentially, the quest for mastery is nothing new; a simple rebranding of what might be termed “good, old-fashioned language teaching”. However, I believe that it does make sense to realign at the end of a school year prior to embarking on the next. Through quality teaching, delivering language lessons which do not shy away from grammar but teach it in a scaffolded, clear and dare we say it ‘fun and engaging way’, students can rightfully aim for excellence and mastery.

However, this must be done in a climate of high expectations which makes no excuses for difficulty and struggle and supports and rewards those who do. As David Didau says, teaching for mastery should not only lead to well rounded, resilient students but also improve exam results. We believe that by putting these changes in place and by further fostering a culture of high expectations in our lessons we will become (please excuse the pun), ‘Masters’ of our own destiny!


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