A changing of the guard: from differentiation to mastery

We shall witness in schools this year a shift in jargon. Differentiation is out. Mastery is in. Mark these words.

In his recently published – and oddly titled – memoir ‘An intelligent person’s guide to Education’, retiring Headmaster Tony Little tells the delightful story of workmen at Eton uncovering a series of images under wood panelling. The painting from around 1520 is believed to be the earliest representation of a school scene in England. A banner headline from Quintilian crowns the scene: Virtuo preceptoris est ingeniorum notare discrimina – ‘the excellence of the teacher is to identify the difference in talents of pupils’. In a word, differentiation.

The whole way in which classroom learning is organised and managed rests on fundamental beliefs about the learner and the learning process. It is not just that doing things differently for different pupils relieves tedium and is more efficient as a means of instruction. It is also the fact that a key moral value is that each member of the class is an individual with her or his own rights, character, disposition to learning and level of understanding.

Differentiation is not a complex proposition, yet it is elusive to enact. Think for a moment of a new skill you have been taught as an adult, and the size of the group you learned in. All teachers know that matching the learning to students’ different needs, aptitudes and preferred styles of learning is the challenge in a classroom. A teaching career of purposeful practice – 10,000 hours and more – and still you’ve not quite cracked it.

And different cultures treat ‘differentiation’ in different ways. I recall training High School teachers in New York and being told openly that ‘we differentiate by sending students to different rooms’. Teaching in schools in eastern India I learned that deep cultural assumptions would not allow teachers to differentiate; all children must be taught the same topics in the same way at the same pace.

Will we have any more luck with mastery, the buzz word that will be in staffroom conversations this coming school year? Policy makers, publishers and TV programme makers have looked East, liked what they have seen in the classrooms of China, and decided we need a dose of this thing called ‘mastery’. International comparators rule. Mathematics Mastery is set to take off in a classroom near you, and publishers like Oxford University Press are right with you!

The painter Paul Cezanne produced over 60 paintings and drawings of Mont St Victoire in his beloved Provence. Have a look at their colours, tints, shapes and shadows. He tackled the scene endlessly; in the words of one art critic, ‘he was for ever approaching without quite reaching it’. Or take the wonderful athlete Mo Farrar. He has said flatly that he can – that he must – become better, run faster. He said it when he was unknown. He’ll say it after his best season and latest gold medal. He is pursuing mastery, in the knowledge that he’ll never reach it. It will always hover beyond his grasp.

Mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes. A bit like differentiation really. As the school year unfolds, we shall see what teachers and pupils make of the new buzz word.

Roy Blatchford is director of the National Education Trust and co-founder of www.internationaleducationtrust.net

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