Mastery in History: some initial reflections

In some ways mastery learning seems an unnecessary buzz word. Surely this is what all learning should be. Teachers teach content and once the students have learnt it we move on. When asked about prior content students shouldn’t have forgotten it. 
However, the term mastery learning seems necessary as it is so far removed from what is going on in most schools. Teachers jump from one topic to the next requiring very little mastery and retention of prior knowledge. 

For several reasons this seems counterintuitive. The idealist in me is critical of this idea as I believe that every student has the right to know the best that has been thought and said. Furthermore, being equipped with this will make them a better and happier person. 

The pragmatist in me says that being equipped with mastery knowledge of history is ultimately going to get them a better GCSE grade. Even if students are doing a GCSE in Germany 1919-45 they can still draw on prior learning from other topics, and in some cases it is essential. 

Let’s take the famous cartoon of the Big Three and the guillotine. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the French Revolution with know about the guillotine. However, when I showed this source to my first GCSE class they had no idea what a guillotine was and most thought that the source depicted a mirror. Therefore without knowledge from prior content they could not fully understand the current topic. 

Therefore I believe that in History we need to be moving towards a mastery approach to history. What would this look like in History? I’m still working that out. But at the moment I would say that mastery is history would require students to master topics and draw on prior content as they study new topics. This would put a specific focus on substantive concepts (as Fordham has outlined) and a strong chronological framework (involving a strong sense of periods and knowledge of key dates). 

There is much to be debated there and I don’t want to outline the exact details of the content which should be mastered (that should be left up to individual departments). Instead I want to focus on the tools of mastery. 

Enquiry Questions

Creating mastery learning in History is of course a challenge. History is such a vast subject. But armed with Fordham’s suggestions for well planned enquiry questions, questions can help us move closer to mastery in history. 

The enquiry question is the bread and butter of most good History teaching. Fordham is quick to emphasise that enquiry questions are not about discovery learning. Instead the enquiry question is a single overarching question which structures a sequence of lessons. 

Within an enquiry we can utilise enquiry questions to ensure that we are recalling information from prior lessons and designing activities which require the restructuring of information. 

Let’s take a series of lessons of the Norman conquest

1. Harrying of the North 

2. Castles

3. Feudal system

4. Domesday book

These lessons could be taught as individual lessons. Disconnected from each other and without an enquiry question. 

However, once we add in the enquiry question ‘how far did the Norman conquest change England’ then we have an enquiry which runs through each of these lessons and requires the retention of information from the previous lesson. 

Fordham adds outlines some great tools to use in individual lessons. Essential for me is requiring students to recall information at the start of lessons and reflecting on how new knowledge has changed their answer to the question at the end of the lesson. I also like to get students restructuring knowledge to answer the question in different ways (e.g. long and short term change and change to different aspects of society). 

Fordham also emphasises that the structure of a series of enquiry question and the switching of scale between overview and depth can require students to retrieve knowledge from earlier enquiries. This could also be used across years and key stages. Especially with students engagement with substantive concepts. Students could be drawing on their knowledge of medieval kingship to answer an enquiry about the Tudors. Therefore ensuring that prior knowledge is not abandoned and is being returned to regularly. 

Knowledge Retrieval Activities 

Mastery learning is ongoing. Even with well designed enquiries which require students to return to prior learning this may be too late.

 As soon as students learn something they are already forgetting it. Therefore if we are waiting a year between enquiries into the concept of revolution we may have to engage in more time recapping the peasant revolt before looking at the industrial revolution than would be ideal. So, how do we ensure students are retaining knowledge between enquiries. 

Bodil Isaksen has written a fantastic post about knowledge retrieval. A central point she makes is that getting knowledge into students’ long-term memory is not just last years teachers job. We cannot just teach medieval England then leave it behind in year 7 just hoping the knowledge will be their when we want to use it. We need to keep requiring students to engage with prior learning. 

But what do we want students to retrieve. Bodil proposes that we focus on the 20% which has the biggest effect. For History, again I would argue this would be substantive concepts. But I would also emphasise it’s a sense of period and some key ‘gateway date’ that help support students chronological framework. 

Here are some ways to do this in History (some from Bodil, some my own):

  • Knowledge organisers with one column blank
  • Timelines from memory
  • Cold call questions
  • MEMRISE HW tasks
  • Mini-whiteboards

If we keep using these kinds of activities to force students to recall knowledge then when they need content from prior topics to support their understanding of the current topic then they can draw on it in current topic. 

Checking Mastery

All of this is irrelevant if students have not first mastered the content. To do this we need to make sure at the end of every lesson we are checking students have mastered the content. I don’t want to say much on this as mastery of content in one lesson is what teachers already do. 
But I would like to outline one tool. Marking every book every lesson. It’s far quicker than it sounds. A quick check of an exit ticket and a differentiated activity at the start of the next lesson to make sure students have mastered the content. 

Used with other strategies it could be that simple. 

These are just a few thoughts and I would be really interested to hear what other thoughts are. 

But ultimately I don’t think any of this fully works unless History departments do it together. Sitting down and thinking about what they want students to master and when and how students are going to return to that content. 

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