To intervene, not extract- what mastery intervention might look like…

practice makes perfect

Ever since I was a goggle eyed NQT, taking children out of core subjects for ‘interventions’ has never made sense to me. Not only has it never seemed right that these children miss what all the other children are doing , thwarting any chance of catching up, but I have always been plagued by how these children must feel leaving what they must know are ‘main course lessons’. None of this is right. On a journey where everyone is meant to arrive at the same destination at the same time, what use is there in taking  the travellers who are further behind and sitting them by the side of the road?

An explanation for this madness has been that these interventions will ‘fill the gaps’ needed to ‘access’ the curriculum.  However for me, the greatest barrier to a curriculum for anyone is not being present when it’s taught.  A school can make all the excuses it likes about timetabling, rotas and staffing, but no child should be taken out of core lessons if they are behind.

If we are serious about mastery in education then we should hook into the idea that all children should have access to the same content, but some might need intensive pre-teaching or follow up over-learning in order to get there like other children. This does not mean that they have a different lesson; this means they are supported to access the lesson before and after the lesson takes place.

Some might argue that this is the same as intervention, isn’t it? And I would agree, but not in that very dated way with ability grouping and those ‘LA’, ‘MA’ and ‘HA,’ or whatever other limiting labels we dished out onto children which meant they had no way of accessing what everyone else was doing. This is intensive intervention around an element of content rather than blasting children over and over again in the same way with a range of earlier content they have missed, which often has no links at all to the in-class learning –  and we wonder why they ‘still don’t get it’.  As Einstein said, madness is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result each time.

No, mastery intervention is different from that old ‘mop up the whole flood’ approach; this is more ‘mop up as we go.’ Here we take whatever it is we want the class to learn – we plan one set of solid, effective lessons and think carefully about the steps required in learning to achieve that. Like this, we break down the learning journey and intervene on those small steps that are required to achieve the learning. This means knowing your children really well and being highly organised so that pre-teaching and over-learning time is planned into the timetable in places where non-core learning takes place. For example, if we want the children to learn to write a set of instructions we think about the children who will find writing an imperative sentence hard work. We then pre-teach a really simple set of imperative sentences, learn them like a parrot, maybe even sing them,  speed write the time connectives, imperative verbs and vocabulary that go with them and set the children  up like this, prepared for the teaching input on instructions.  We might of course do this kind of thing with the whole class over the learning journey, probably a good thing if we do, but some children will need this more intense deliberate practice. It will make a huge difference if these children experience this in short bursts before and following the set of lessons on instructions.

The same can be done for maths topics too. If you want to teach subtraction, give them a chance to practice before hand counting backwards, ordering numbers backwards and jumping back in tens and ones. That silly starter at the beginning of a silly three part lesson doesn’t count, if they don’t know how to count in tens then a five minute whole class starter isn’t the solution.

Now, yes of course this will not solve all ‘catch up’ issues right now because we undoubtedly have a back log of huge gaps that have been left while teachers have just carried on teaching without addressing them because of pressure to meet benchmarks and  ‘cover and move on.’ You might say, how can you pre-teach instructions if they can’t even form letters? Well, that is an extreme example, but yes, sadly that will be the case for some children. And I would say then, is the solution to allow them to miss the instruction lesson for handwriting practice? No, do some handwriting practice another time, but still get that pre-teaching in with all the components for instructions – if they learn to say a good set of instructions and can begin to read them they are well on the way to being able to write them soon, but don’t allow them to miss that instruction lesson. It’s the ‘can do’ approach at all these little turns that counts.

Apologies if all this is completely obvious, which I’m sure it will be to some of my learned friends. However, I think for some teachers they need reminding that learning is all about making links to previous learning. Time is precious in schools so there is no point in a child for example learning number bonds to ten for the hundredth time just before a lesson on multiplication. Much better instead to spend that valuable time counting things in groups and supporting them making the link between repeated addition and multiplying, then they have a chance to hit that multiplication lesson running rather than trying to forget about number bonds all of sudden .  This is then really ‘smart, inclusive, interventionist differentiation’ – there I invented a new piece of educational blurb to go with it as well. I think this approach could make a big difference to the challenges of historic gaps in learning and make a difference to many children’s experiences during lesson time. Give them a chance – fill them with fuel before a lesson rather than give them a ‘lower ability’ task different from the rest. Enable, not disable through differentiation.