Friday, August 8, 2014

When Mastery Comes - The Teacher's Tale.

"The Franklin's Tale". image courtesy

The notion of mastery in marriage, politics, art, craft and much else is one of the hardy perennials in the garden of human history. This post concerns its currency in the vocabulary of education today to denote certain states of learning and teaching prowess.

 Neither "mastery" nor its variant forms featured significantly in my own career, in which academic context, I'd say only "master" was in general circulation: it meant "male teacher" and a higher degree.With regard to learning, my students "learned", "got", "grasped", "understood" and "appreciated". Pennies dropped. I neither set out consciously to develop "mastery" nor indicated that state may have been achieved. None of my colleagues were officially designated "master teacher", "expert", "highly-skilled leader" "outstanding" or "guru". They were simply "head teacher" or an "assistant teacher" with or without additional paid responsibilities. 

In retirement, I follow as best I can what's happening in schools and have observed a sea-change from shared appreciation of the implicit to a systemic impulse for explicitness. So universal is this shift that it re-contours every hill and valley of education's landscape. The forces driving this change are I think generally understood, embraced and opposed with equal passion. The impact on the classroom is for me the litmus test and in a future post I'll look specifically at the virtue of leaving certain matters implicit in lessons. Here I just want to sound a note of caution on the deployment of "mastery" in the terminology of learning and argue against the concept of "Master Teacher" as a promotional post in schools.


There is the world of difference in the general use of a word and its formal adoption to make explicit reference to a state of educational achievement. I can speak with equanimity about Carl Faberge's mastery, indicate Professor Moriarty's genius as a criminal "mastermind" or recommend John Barton's "Playing Shakespeare" series as a "masterclass" without the need to delineate every "masterly" feature. If, however, a choice is made to deploy the word in the context of learning, descriptive criteria and a case for its value are essential. 

There is, first of all, in my own subject, a well-populated set of topics just not amenable to "mastery". I've been (enjoyably) in near constant company with rhythm and metaphor for some 55 years: it would be presumptuous and meaningless to claim mastery of either. Certainly one may come to identify, describe and comment critically on the use of sprung rhythm in the poetry of Hopkins. Similarly, the distinction of metaphor from simile, their effective use in a student's own writing & their appreciation do educate. However, despite decades of responding to imagery, so elusive is this literary technique in its density, manifold layering and resonances that I'd never claim "comprehensive knowledge or skill", still less "control or superiority" - the (related) strands of mastery's definition. I have noted elsewhere that ( along with appreciation of form and of narrative voice) the imaginative act of experiencing images is one of the most common and difficult matters to nurture in A level students. 

Secondary English teachers will be aware how commonly one revisits of necessity even the awareness of alliteration. Not that it hasn't been explicitly taught in earlier years. Much the same applies to words commonly confused. 

Now, such knowledge would initially seem more open to teacher and pupil recording "mastered" after being taught, practised and tested. My own education is characterised by just this process. While not exactly in possession of a photographic memory, I revised for O and A level exams by hypnotising myself and looking at my exercise books so often in that state I could see the pages in my mind in the exam room. I got the lowest pass grade in Maths by writing out geometry theorems suggested by questions I didn't understand. 

As with all the play scripts I've learned over the years in amateur theatre, almost every detail absorbed for every exam I've ever taken was forgotten within a fortnight. My mind evidently says what is retained is that which is of current use. Keep testing me, I'll retain it. 

The underlying question here is "Just when does mastery come?" Logically, one would need to test the adult decades after leaving school to rubber stamp "Mastery." You have to keep on making Faberge Easter Eggs (and die, ironically) to earn that accolade.

So the problem I have with this word in the context of the classroom is its too slick, premature implication of accomplished in both senses of the word. This is self-defeating - the very act of claiming mastered! limits progress and I think, in over-egging achievement does the pupil no favour and demeans a word descriptive of a rare phenomenon, best kept for Old Masters.

The more explicit and measurable you make the stuff of a lesson, the shallower the experience becomes. And, in truth, I have to conclude that the impetus for mastery derives more from its signification of control - which leads right back to that systemic anxiety to appear to be in control, to want control. At root, therefore, I think the illusion of mastery serves the exercise of power, not children. For me, the only virtuous manifestation of control in the classroom is in the maintenance of humane, consistent discipline. 

Master Teacher.

Whichever party is in government after the next election, there will be temptation to dust off existing, common proposals to create posts for Master Teachers (or a less gendered, less American title) as a perceived, logical fine tuning of Performance Related Pay. The Coalition's original (shelved) proposal of 12/12/2011 may be viewed HERE .

Were I still in service, I should decline such a position were it offered and view with dismay the appearance of such beings on my staff. As with mastery there is a realm of difference between complimenting a teacher as great, outstanding, inspirational, highly-skilled, fabulous, cool or a legend! and employing and paying you formally for being thus. As far as I am concerned, an employment contract entails a job to do and someone to do it. A job which breaks down into jobs, not personal qualities. It matters not who constitutes any "independent board" to draw up final criteria - the commitment to a monumental mistake would have been made already.

I wonder: 
For how long would a Master Teacher be appointed? Such characteristics as those in the proposal would surely necessitate constant demonstration to justify continuance.

What impact would this have on teachers? The collation of supporting evidence by one ambitious for such a post would be onerous and significantly modify behaviour with staff and students. Some teachers would be advantaged in appearing suitable by a lighter work load or membership of a high-profile department. 

How close to the realities of a school are the elements in such a proposal? DO such creatures exist who, term in term out, display unerringly such qualities? Not in my experience.

Is it not simply shallow to imagine only certain members of staff are beacons of advice? The Teach First group in Channel 4's series sought out each other. The staff room is a community with freedom to approach those we trust, respect, like or sense as kin. A charismatic figure may be the last thing you need in your confidence. 

The introduction of such a structure would formalise what should  be natural and distort relationships. You should pay teachers for what they do not what they are - or more precisely what they have to wrench themselves into being to conform to an ideal model that demeans anyone who tries to personify qualities rendered explicit which were best left implicit.

Go into any staff room and everyone knows who shines that little bit brighter. Occasionally you have the honour of serving alongside a great soul. They require no payment, not even recognition. We do not envy them: we are grateful. We never tell them of this, directly. 

You can keep your Master Teachers: the greatest compliment I ever was paid (and it moves me now to recall) came heavily disguised in the graceful guise of implicit love when the school secretaries dubbed me "the ordinary teacher". 

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved





  1. I have two responses to your timely piece, Ray. The first is straightforward.
    Despite various attempts in the last ten years to ‘create’ the ‘master teacher’ (Advanced Practitioner to Expert Teacher), the truth is that every ‘real’ teacher knows that ever to have the temerity to don the expert’s teacher’s hat has the obvious and predictable result: you walk a couple of paces before it slips down over your eyes and you end up on your arse! This is because, as you suggest, like anything worth doing there can be no mastery: in fact I count it as one of the joys. Like writing, you can be good at it (even successful) but you return like everyone else to the blank page and though you perhaps get more reliable, it cannot be mastered. Eliot had it best when he indicated a much more viable attitude to all manner of endeavour in East Coker. Rather than this spurious quest for excellence, he merely indicated that “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” In our assessment driven education system, the rest has sadly become ‘the business’.

  2. And this is, of course the more worrying second point, that this is the central tragedy of contemporary education, which has abandoned ‘learning’ for ‘achievement’. Colleges, for example, rather than ‘collections of scholars’ are now merely organisations, doing exactly what organisations do, according to playwright Edward Bond (writing in 1976!):
    “Not all communities have a culture. Some have only an organisation. The members of an organization are often only monkey people, who can organize and run advanced technologies and elaborate institutions and governments- but these things don’t make a culture. An organization is concerned only with efficiency (though it is finally inefficient). Its technology tries to tell men how they can live. A culture does this too, but it also tells them how they ought to live and ensures that whatever is possible is done to make that ‘ought’ practical;” Edward Bond, Introduction to The Fool [1976])
    This trying to tell people how they can live is something picked up by academic Nick Peim in his ‘Mythologies of Education’ where he writes of the invidious ‘normalisation’ of education:
    “The techniques of this form of government of the newly schooled society quickly became normalised. Age stratification, the definition of norms of progress and curriculum content, the deployment of pastoral discipline within the enclosed social space of the classroom, the ethic of self-managed motivation, the hortatory style of the assembly, the organisation of the playground as the meeting point for the culture of the child with the culture of the school (metonymic of the national culture) - all combined to transform the ethical substance of the child as well as to cultivate a specific level of competence and knowledge that the complex economy of modernity required. The figure of the teacher, cultural worker in close social proximity to her charges, was developed as the key instrument of ‘governmentality’. The kindly disciplinarian dispenses education as the necessary correction of your wayward tendencies. The agents of education will tell you not only what you need to know, but what you need to do and to be. You will be educated above all in the norms of conduct befitting your social destiny.”

    The enemy, as it always was, is a kind of orthodoxy that puts the measurable above the immeasurable, fact above fancy, reason above imagination. It was against this tendency that many years ago ‘Rintrah’ roared and shook! In Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his bold attempt to make sense of public life in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Blake was concerned, as we are, by contemporary man’s loss of autonomy due in his subjugation to prescribed ‘truths’. For Blake, in his 18th Century context, it was the mantras of religion which were responsible for laying down the rules by which the thoughts and actions of mankind were governed and measured, and natural thoughts and desires which in the poem Blake defines as “energy” thus enslaved. Blake’s Heaven houses those individuals who reject all forms of systematic control instead choosing to follow the path of their own energy and senses while Hell is the dwelling place for those who have allowed their energy to be stilled by embracing systems of control created by others.

    Food for thought?

  3. Food for thought, indeed, Pete!

    For myself, I would just say that in these reflective retirement years East Coker's "Old men ought to be explorers" seems an honourable orientation for my ship's compass.

    You'll no doubt note in my blogging a Bunyanesque instinct to the vernacular. For me, this is crucial in the long journey back to more open skies in education (see my posts on The Crucible). i find I must smelt words and images afresh to evade the presiding parlance & walk the only lane I trust

    So I offer you and anyone else reading who is not at ease in this dispensation a fragment from another Pilgrim:

    “This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
    The difficulty will not me offend.
    For I perceive the way to life lies here.
    Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear.
    Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
    Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.”
    ―John Bunyan,The Pilgrim's Progress