Color & Control:

Mastery vs Belonging


I found this interesting commentary over at Don’s Learning Log. He’s discussing whether a sense of belonging or mastery of the subject should come first within a classroom….

I’ve been visiting schools recently and observing teachers. It’s a great privilege to be able to watch teachers teaching children and the pride and passion with which most people approach the task is quite humbling.

However, I’ve been struck by how necessity is the mother of invention – particularly where the organisation of learning comes into play…

East Lothian has many 2/3-teacher schools, which necessitates the “dreaded” (by parents) composite class. In such a situation the teacher might have three or four different year groups represented in the same class. There is no alternative so the teacher accepts the responsibility to organise learning in such a way that every pupil in the class gains access to the curriculum and makes progress.

Contrast this with the secondary school where it is possible to split a single year group into discrete “ability” groups and give responsibility for each group to a single teacher. Surely such organisation of learning has benefits all ‘round? It’s easier for the teacher to teach one “ability” level; pupils have access to a curriculum which is tailored to their “ability”; the pupils are working with children of the same “ability”; the confidence of pupils of “lower ability” is not compromised by being in presence of “higher” ability peers; support staff can be focussed upon the lower “ ability” groups; most parents, who express a preference, prefer setting – in fact huge concerns can arise if their child is not in a set appropriate to their expectations, parents will often refer to the fact that their child is in a “higher” as a statement about how well they are doing in school, i.e. they are doing better than the rest. The final and perhaps most compelling – yet unspoken reason- for “ability” setting is the reality that pupils of lower “ability” are those who are likely to disrupt classes and the learning of others – by removing them from the presence of those who “want to learn” the teachers are able to make progress with the curriculum. Finally, the HMIe themselves have actively promoted setting since 1996 as the preferred mode of organising learning. Please note that none of the above directly relate to any correlation between “ability” setting and attainment.

It’s a brave secondary Head Teacher then who even thinks of challenging such overwhelming forces in favour of “ability” setting – especially where the scale of the school makes it easy to facilitate.

Yet the small school Head Teacher faces no such pressure and although they might look to emulate some of the setting models from larger schools the prime modus operandi is the use of groups characterised by careful planning, differentiation and personalisation.

I spoke to such a group of pupils in a P5 – P7 class and asked them if they saw any disadvantages of being in such a class – they saw none! Yet when I asked them what the advantages were I got a long list, which included: “You get to hear things that you’ve done before but didn’t perhaps understand the first time”; “You get to help other people in the class who are doing new things”; “You get to know people of different ages”; and “You get to see what you will be doing next year” – wow – talk about metacognition!

In the summer I was fortunate enough to listen to Norman Kunc – who enjoys (as opposed to suffers from) cerebral palsy – and has the most challenging views about how schools unwittingly erode and prevent children from having any sense of belonging to the education system they experience.

Kunc used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to point out that modern society values mastery over belonging – yet in Maslow’s hierarchy mastery cannot be achieved unless the “need” for belonging is first fulfilled. The result is that young people are disengaged from the learning process and seek out other groups with whom they can form allegiance and fulfil their need to belong.

I’m not decrying setting in all circumstances – but I do have to question the unwitting impact, artificial limits and fixed expectations which extensive setting places upon children.

As a former Head Teacher – who allowed setting in Maths and English – I only wish I had had the courage of my convictions to explore alternative and more positive ways of organising learning.


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