Can pushing children through the curriculum too soon be detrimental to their development?
The challenge in front of teachers and their students is vast; education has so many stages and levels, so much to learn and such a finite time to do it all in. The temptation is that, once they can do something or have shown an understanding to move them onto the next stage. But, is this the right thing to do? It may seem logical to move them forward when they appear ready but when are they ready? Some teachers may say once they can do something half a dozen times, independently, then they are all set to progress but is this true understanding, do they really understand the concept which will, in turn, enable them to grasp more complex ideas?
Currently, education systems around the world are redirecting their efforts to a different teaching style. The buzzword ‘mastery’ is prevalent throughout schools in the UK and beyond and especially with regards to the teaching of mathematics. With a very quick browse of school websites, you will see statements such as ‘The Mastery-learning model forms the basis of our teaching approach as we aim to ensure there are no gaps in children’s subject knowledge.’ This kind of statement suggests that in previous years the approach was different and in turn led to gaps in children’s development.
Mastery is definitely an ideal that should be part of a school’s ethos when learning. Ensuring that children have plenty of time to observe, comment, understand, apply, evaluate and thus learn is imperative. One of the main concepts in this mastery approach is to allow students to practice a skill within a variety of contexts without increasing the difficulty or changing the focus of the learning. For example; 6 times tables, First you might group items by 6; then start counting in sixes; then create arrays of the 6 times table; then maybe make links with the ‘law of commutativity’ e.g. 5 x 6 and 6 x 5 both equal 30.
There are some who think that this approach is one that could hold back more able children, as they are introduced to more advanced topics too late for the ability they have to advance. This is a very good point and with some children, it should be considered. If you as an educator or parent feel their understanding is sound and concrete then, of course, yes they should be moved on to more advanced work. However, for most children, an increase in variety and deeper thinking questions can provide much more scope in their progression.
I personally believe it is a good approach and that all educators should at least consider some of the benefits of a mastery-style approach. As a teacher myself, I would hate to think that my students had been rushed through aspects of the curriculum (mainly to ensure they are ready for testing) and then they find later in their education they struggle with a concept because of their lack of true understanding or mastery.