Whenever I come across a good idea in teaching, two questions spring to mind, usually in this order:

  1. How have I missed this?
  2. How would this work in history?

So it was when I stumbled upon mastery teaching.

When I first heard it explained by Jay Altman, I was impressed: instead of teaching, testing and then moving on, teachers test and then loop back, reteaching material with which students have struggled.  Altmann described visiting the maths teacher with the best results in Boston and being surprised that all he did was taught a fairly standard lesson and finish with an exit ticket.  “How are your results so good?” he wanted to know.  The teacher explained that he checked the exit tickets and gave students help the same day if they hadn’t mastered the lesson content.  I was impressed and embarrassed: it sounded so simple and sensible, but somehow I’d never learned about it – or perhaps not understood it – until then.

So I played around with mastery learning on a small scale…  within and across lessons.  But while I was able to identify gaps and reteach material, I never quite reached a point at which I could claim all of a class had mastered very much.  Partly, this was a struggle to draw the line in mixed ability classes or to define exactly what’s essential in any given topic.  Another issue was the struggle to create the time to conduct this properly, with seven or eight classes and a number of students who weren’t too keen on turning up for ‘additional help’ voluntarily.  Just keeping records was a struggle.

So, while I successfully designed test and revision for various topics and groups, I never managed to design an entire scheme of work based on mastery learning.  The concept mostly just floated around the back of my mind making me feel ineffective.  A couple of years ago though, I was inspired by a visit to John Blake for a number of reasons, two of which stand out: firstly, he reinforced my conviction about the importance of teaching students a basic chronological framework; secondly, he he explained how he had designed a scheme of work leading to mastery of the topic.  The rest of this post is simply me explaining my attempt to make John’s approach work in my classroom.

What I wanted students to know

Chronological understanding is an underlying structure allowing historical understanding: the mannequin on which we hang more detailed knowledge of topics, the ‘grammar‘ of the subject (to quote Dorothy L Sayers).  My goal is providing students with a ‘mental picture’ of the past: in Year 7, I wanted students to gain this appreciation for world history as a whole; in Year 8, I aimed to refresh and build upon the Year 7 work by giving students a detailed appreciation of the bare bones of British history (more on the curriculum, which shows how this fits in with subsequent units here).  At its simplest, this means knowing things like: the Romans came substantially before the Tudors, most people were peasant farmers in Norman times, democracy and women’s rights emerged in the Industrial Revolution and Twentieth Century.

Lesson 1: One student’s prior knowledge/ preconceptions as to Roman and Stuart times…

This was something (relatively) simple and crucial – I wanted all students to attain mastery over it.  When designing this scene of work the previous year, I’d experimented with repeated testing via card sort to build students’ memory of the topics involved, supplemented with questioning to try to bring out more of the story behind it.  (Much of the approach to testing, repetition and memory taken in this posts rests on the foundations of my experiments the previous year).  I could see the testing was pretty effective and wanted to keep it, but I wanted a couple of key changes: I wanted students to get a fuller sense of the story behind the time periods – something which hadn’t been as central to the activity as I would have liked.  And, rather than knowing that students could complete a card sort and timeline accurately, I hoped to use mastery learning to ensure the key ideas ended up in their heads.

Introducing mastery learning

‘The Beginner’s Guide to the History of London’

First, I had to work out exactly what I wanted students to know about each time period.  This was tricky, given that I limited myself to two sides of A4 to cover two millennia of British history.  In the end, I resorted to formulating one sentence each about the politics, society, economy, religious beliefs, the state of London and remaining landmarks of each time period.  This is the section on the Romans:

From 43AD, England was part of the Roman Empire; the emperor ruled overall, but a governor kept charge of Britannia (the Roman name for the province) for him. Society was divided into citizens (who could serve in the army and government), freemen and slaves (who were the property of their owners). Almost everyone was a farmer – alongside some soldiers and a few craftsmen and traders. The Romans were tolerant of other religions and Roman gods were worshipped alongside local ones, such as Sulis-Minerva. About 25,000-30,000 people lived in London, which was both a garrison town and a trading centre. We are left with the remains of a Roman temple in Greenwich, many Roman roads (including Shooters Hill Road), part of London Wall and the Amphitheatre in Guildhall.  [The full document can be found here].

If this seems reductive, that’s probably because it is.  But if students didn’t know these things already, it was a useful start.  Alongside this, I prepared a set of cards with the names of time periods on one side and an image of a (surviving) London building from that period on the reverse.  (Each building was one students would see in the trip around London which complemented this scheme of work).


After the first couple of lessons, I began each session with a starter which picked up a common area students were having trouble understanding and tried to unravel it, for example, we addressed what happened at the end of Roman rule, whether king or parliament ‘won’ the Seventeenth Century and which era saw the greatest change in ordinary people’s lives.

After the first few minutes, students spent time reading through and noting the key points from the sheet.  (I mightn’t have bothered with written notes in this format had the school not been collectively looking over its shoulder for the next Ofsted visit, but there you go).CIMG8685

During the last few minutes, students tested themselves with the cards and, when they were done, the notes.


From my instruction sheet:

1. You can name (without looking at the back!) all of the time period cards [i.e. say which building belonged in which time period].

2. You can put all of the time period cards in order [using either the pictures or the names].

3. You can describe to your partner (without looking at your notes) what life was like for all of the following topics, for any three randomly selected cards:

  • Politics
  • Society
  • Economy
  • Religion
  • London

If you pass the test, come and tick my sheet and write the extension you have chosen to do.

The idea was that repeated testing would challenge students to keep going over the information until they’d really taken it in: first the names of the time periods, then the order, and then the detail of life in each era.  Having a tick sheet allowed me to see clearly how far each student had got, double check and offer appropriate support.

Progress in the stages described above. Tick for student having told me they could do it, turned to a cross when I’d checked.


There was also a series of extension tasks about different periods which students could choose between, based on the excellent ‘Pocket Histories’ from the Museum of London – but I’ll avoid discussing this here, as very few students spent much time on them.

The result

Some things went well:

  • Mnemonics helped again:
Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Middle Ages, Tudors, Stuarts, Hanoverians, Victorians, Twentieth Century
  • Students enjoyed the repeated testing on the cards, both as a bit of a game, and as something which they could see themselves getting better at doing.

  • With a couple of exceptions, every student learned the buildings and the time periods, and most finished the notes.
  • The task created innumerable ‘teachable moments’ with excellent questions from students which I could either answer individually or, if they were common issues, I could cover at the start of the next lesson or during the same one.
  • The starter content sections were a good way of picking up and bringing to life common questions and errors.
  • The links with the trip were brought the unit to life.
  • I’m pretty certain it’s more effective than the card sort approach from last year – success in a card sort can be assisted by remembering the shapes and peculiarities of the cards, in a way which these questions avoid.

Some issues:

  • It could get monotonous for students.  Saving the testing with the cards to the end was one way of addressing this, since students found it so enjoyable.
  • The noting took a long time.  Too long – and to questionable benefit in some cases.  I asked students to choose (mind-maps, bullet points) but despite some time looking at model noting, some of it was perhaps of limited use.
  • While there was a reason for saving the card sort until the end of each lesson, half way through, as I realised how long the notes were taking, I switched to asking students to learn the cards first.  In retrospect, I might have started testing students on the cards alone earlier.
  • A couple of students struggled even with retaining the images and time period names.

What did students learn?

I chose to assess through annotated drawings – an experiment probably worthy of another post in its own right.  I asked students to draw and label life in three time periods, making the Stuarts compulsory (without advanced warning) and letting students choose the other two they did.  Here is a pretty random selection of results – I’ve tried to show a fair variety of what we ended up with:

I’d call it a partial success.  Compared to the whiteboard drawing of a tractor above, which was pretty typical (other showed plague and planes, factories and buildings, houses), most students have made a dramatic improvement.  Compared to what I think I’d hoped, I was disappointed with some of the pictures; compared to where we started it was progress.

I don’t know if this can be called mastery learning.  I’m pretty sure it’s a step forward from the previous year’s scheme of work and I’m equally sure it’s not the solution.  I offer it as a possible move in the right direction.  I don’t think it would ever be desirable to approach most history schemes of work in this way – but I do think it’s one piece of the puzzle, helping create a bass of knowledge, of breadth, around which to riff a melody of detail and depth.