A New Language for Learning

mastery - the new language of learning from the DfE based on broad student development

A new language about learning is emerging from the DfE and at its core is ‘mastery’. Having been through an inspection this year, my advice to any school waiting for an inspection is to ensure they are fluent with the most fashionable parlance and are developing learning sequences which provide deeper opportunities to reason and evaluate curriculum content.

In old money, this used to be called ‘extension’, ‘enrichment’, ‘challenge’ or ‘stretch’. Now, it’s all about ensuring pupils, whilst being ‘broadly’ taught similar knowledge, are embedding learning through application, evaluation and critique of skills.

The steps of Mastery include:

  • An expectation that every pupil reaches a minimum (but high) level of knowledge and understanding of the same content.
  • Effective teaching, with carefully sequenced, structured approach focused on a small steps of progression carefully focused around a clear understanding of how pupils learn a subject and in doing so helping avoid typical misconceptions.
  • Additional support for those who need it to reach the minimum level, through corrective teaching, interventions etc.
  • A focus on learning being about pupils’ ability to recall, apply and demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skill in different contexts over a period of time.
  • Regular assessment, through a variety of means (precise questioning, review work, quizzes and testing) which helps ensure accurate understanding of pupils’ learning


There isn’t much one would want to challenge within this; it very much reflects our deeper understanding of metacognition and the complexity of learning processes. The emphasis for schools, however, means ensuring assessment, lesson planning and teaching sequences accurately provide opportunities for pupils to grow ‘conceptual understanding’, ‘procedural fluency’ and ‘depth’.

We don’t, of course, organize school improvement around Ofsted frameworks. It does help though, to know what we are being measured against and are confident about our own visions / philosophy about learning in our schools.

Judgments for outstanding state that teaching should:

  • Introduce subject content progressively and constantly demand more of pupils.
  • Teachers check pupils’ understanding systematically and effectively in lessons, offering clearly directed and timely support.
  • Pupils develop the capacity to learn from mistakes and they become keen learners who want to find out more. Most are willing to find out new information to develop, consolidate and deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills, both in lessons and in extra-curricular activities.
  • Most pupils commit to improving their work. They are given time to practice key skills and apply their knowledge and understanding in new ways that stretches their thinking in a wide range of subjects.


Teachers from our schools are working hard to ensure deep learning is at the heart of our approach to learning. We have developed a policy statement, adjusted planning formats and are leading CPD to embed mastery learning in school. It has helped us review the function of interventions so that learning gaps are closed through focused corrective teaching and has given learning contexts a greater purpose.

We are more aware of the need to ‘pre-teach’ and assess pupil’s specific knowledge required to make progress and the need to know every learner’s starting point before embarking on a learning sequence.  Our understanding of how assessment informs corrective teaching means that pupils are given more time to consolidate learning. No longer can we place limits on learning by giving children separate, disconnected learning tasks, whilst other pupil groups are pushed through curriculum content at speed.

Teaching provides greater opportunities to develop reasoning skills through skillful questioning and are expected to apply learning skills in a range of different contexts.  We are also supporting children in developing their ‘language for learning’ using our ‘question stems’ and learning postcards.  These are being carefully modeled with children so that, through scaffold support, they have the language and social skills to tackle more complex learning challenges. This is what Ken Robinson describes as an ‘organic’ model of learning.

He writes in Creative Schools that revolutions don’t wait for legislation. The point is, we know enough about learning to ensure every schools creates their own bespoke learning philosophy with an underpinning framework for learning. This includes:

  • How medium term planning is organised to ensure coherent learning sequences lead to high quality learning experiences.
  • How assessment (formative and summative) supports planning, teaching focus and organisation of learning.
  • What a core teaching sequence looks like in lessons (e.g. modelling, deep questioning and active learning).
  • How collaboration and peer to peer devices are used to strengthen learning concepts.
  • What learning dispositions and relationships are being developed over time (e.g. self-awareness, resilience and risk taking)


With the majority of primary schools nationally being Ofsted ‘Good’ or better, the climate is right for schools to become more creative and self determining in designing the futures they want for staff and children. Perhaps it’s a message which just isn’t being heard but we are entering an era in education where innovation and risk taking is actually being encouraged. One-day inspections and the gradual move towards a peer-led inspection framework are evidence of this. However, there is still a great deal of caution and fear– driven mainly from the unknown 2016 test outcomes and significantly higher expectations placed on children in Year 2 and Year 6.  Ironically, this fear threatens paralysis at a time when we need to take risks.

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