A ‘Mastery-light’ Subject Curriculum Model


By Andy Tharby

Before we consider the shape and dimensions of a subject curriculum, we should first consider its purpose. In my opinion, a curriculum should always be challenging in its depth and breadth so that:

  • students acquire powerful knowledge that takes them beyond their experience;
  • students are encouraged to enjoy and take an interest in the subject;
  • students are well-prepared for terminal exams at the end of five years of study;
  • students build their academic background knowledge and cultural capital by acquiring Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary;
  • students acquire the foundations needed in each subject for further study beyond GCSE should they wish.

However, these lofty aims will not be realised unless the subject curriculum is designed  to support the incremental accrual of knowledge. Cognitive science research points us to two useful findings: first that ‘higher-order’ thinking skills cannot exist without factual knowledge, and second that we learn in the context of what we already know. According to this theory, an effective subject curriculum would be best shaped like a pyramid – with a base of foundational knowledge that rises upwards towards more detailed and refined knowledge and skill. The trick, of course, lies in getting this sequence right.

Unfortunately, this idealistic model of the progression of learning does not always sit comfortably with the internal ‘shape’ of each subject. Socio-linguist Basil Bernstein (1999) theorised that academic disciplines should be thought of as hierarchical or horizontal knowledge structures.  Hierarchical subjects, such as the sciences, ‘create very general propositions and theories, which integrate knowledge at lower levels…’ (p.160) New knowledge either refutes or is incorporated into existing theory.

Other subjects have a horizontal structure. These subjects contain a series of ‘specialised languages with specialised modes of interrogation and criteria for the construction and circulation of texts’ (p,160). English literature, the social sciences and philosophy could be said to be horizontal subjects that divide into schools of criticism, modes of enquiry and discrete categories. Other horizontal subjects, like mathematics, have separate and discrete modes of enquiry for separate problems – think algebra, trigonometry and geometry.


In practice, most school subjects contain a mixture of the vertical and the horizontal. However, curriculum planning in some subjects – such as English literature and history – is far from easy. This is because the hierarchical nature of human knowledge accumulation does not fully complement the horizontal nature of knowledge organisation within the subject. The problem is intensified by the fact that the shape of the subject curriculum is often warped by external and internal assessment requirements these days.

Most subject curricular at Key Stage 3 fall into one of the following categories:

Archipelago curriculum. Here the curriculum is taught in atomised topics that are vaguely linked by a shared discourse or a generic set of ‘skills’ – i.e. in Term 1 we cover topic x, in Term 2 we cover topic y, in Term 3 we cover topic z, etc.

Spiral curriculum. Here children return to topics at intervals and with increasing levels of difficulty. For example:

Year 7 – topic x (easy), topic y (easy), topic z (easy), etc.

Year 8 – topic x (moderate), topic y (moderate), topic z (moderate), etc.

Year 9 – topic x (hard), topic y (hard), topic z (hard), etc.

Mastery curriculum. Here children do not move on to the next topic until they have mastered the first. As student learning dictates the pace rather than the curriculum plan, things tend to move on a little more slowly. A mastery curriculum centres on essential concepts and foundational knowledge. It aims to integrate, rather than isolate, the previous term’s work. For example:

Term 1: topic x

Term 2: topic x and topic y

Term 3: topic x and topic y and topic z, etc

Of course, these examples are hideously simplified. Most subject curriculums contain a mixture of the three approaches. My fear is that majority of subjects – especially at Key Stage 3 – design the curriculum like the archipelago model (a term I have invented). As there is little expectation that children retain what they have learnt beyond an end-of-term assessment, the subject becomes more like a pleasurable holiday cruise around the islands than a learning experience. The spiral curriculum is a better design because it seeks to deepen and extend knowledge over time. However, it can lead to superficiality and repetition. There is often no time for mastery and depth in the first iteration and the time gap between iterations can cause students to forget what they covered in the previous iterations. Once again, students arrive at Year 10 having learnt very little.

Switching to the mastery model is enticing but problematic. First, it would require that a department rip up its curriculum and start again – a huge ask in a time of changing GCSE assessment. Second, a successful curriculum plan would require a huge amount of resourcing, subject expertise and training – again a capacity issue. Third, for reasons suggested above, it is not clear that a mastery model fits comfortably with every subject.

My solution, therefore, is a ‘mastery light’ approach. In short, this is an archipelago or spiral model which includes elements of built-in mastery. The first move is for subject teachers to differentiate between portable knowledge and non-portable knowledge. Put simply, portable knowledge is content that can be carried forward and used to inform and underpin new learning. You might consider it as the essential factual, conceptual and procedural knowledge needed to master the curriculum. Non-portable knowledge, on the other hand, is context-specific; it stays in one place. Take, for instance, a Key Stage 3 English class studying Of Mice and Men. Portable knowledge might include ideas about foreshadowing, tragic structure, the theme of power or strategies for writing a critical essay. Non-portable knowledge might be the names of the characters, the events in Chapter 3 or the meaning of the word ‘bindlestiff’. This is not to say that students should not be encouraged to learn and retain non-portable knowledge; just that it is not essential for subject mastery.

Once essential portable knowledge has been identified, the curriculum should allow for a range of strategies that encourage the long-term retention of this knowledge. These might include:

  • Regular retrieval practice – e.g. memory platforms.
  • Cumulative assessment – use termly and yearly tests to cover all portable knowledge covered in the curriculum to this point.
  • Lagged homework – use homework to practise previously-covered portable knowledge.
  • Knowledge organisers to make clear the progression of portable knowledge.
  • Vocabulary lists and tests.

The above strategies are simple and evidence-informed. However, they can only really be put to use when a subject has decided on the portable knowledge it will teach and which order it will be taught in. This, I believe, is the way to achieve a mastery curriculum without tearing everything to shreds and starting all over again.

Further reading:

Bernstein, Basil (1999) Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An essay, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20:2, 157-173

Christodoulou, Daisy (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning (Austin, TX: Deans for Impact). Available at: http://deansforimpact.org/pdfs/The_Science_of_Learning.pdf.

Willingham, Daniel T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass).

Young, Michael and David Lambert (2014). Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice (London: Bloomsbury Academic).

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One Response to A ‘Mastery-light’ Subject Curriculum Model

  1. Andy Tharby says:

    Reblogged this on Reflecting English and commented:
    My latest piece for the school blog on curriculum models.

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