Thoughts on Mastery In The Classroom by @TeacherToolkit

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This is a blog about mastery in the classroom, based on the musings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.

There are my thoughts based on books I have read and an accumulation of teaching experiences of others and self. I do not promise a solution in this blog, or even a degree of coherence. However, you will read a short introduction to Gurdjieff, with links and references to mastery and memory and how all three can apply in the classroom for us as teachers, and potentially our students. I hope you find it useful …


Gurdjieff claimed ‘that people cannot perceive reality in their current states because they do not possess consciousness, but rather live in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.”‘ I wonder if this saying can be applied to teaching? That we as teachers, are often in auto-pilot, not truly in tune with what is going on in the classroom?

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

Image: RedBullMusicAcademy

Who was Gurdjieff?

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949), was a dominant teacher of the early to mid-20th century who taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”. Gurdjieff developed a means for doing so, calling his teachings, “The Work” (connoting “work on oneself”) or “the Method”. According to his theory and stipulation, Gurdjieff’s method for awakening one’s awareness is the discipline called the “Fourth Way“.

According to this system, The fourth way has no specific forms and comes and goes controlled by some particular laws of its own. How true is this of teaching in the classroom? In 1912 he offered Moscow an unknown teaching, a teaching that was ‘neither a religion, nor a philosophy, but a practical teaching to be lived’. He called this education ‘The Fourth Way’. To emanate the way he suggested, nothing was to be believed until authenticated by direct evidence. His way of life, was that everything had to be questioned – one’s beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and perhaps teaching methods?


How true is this today of teachers in the classroom? Should we question how we are trained? How we are taught to teach from feedback received? What we are told / guided to do by our peers, mentors and senior leadership?

The Fourth Way:

Gurdjieff had taught that traditional paths that followed one of three ways:

  • The Way of the fakir; works to obtain mastery of the attention (self-mastery) through struggles with [controlling] the physical body …
  • The Way of the monk; works to obtain the same mastery of the attention (self-mastery) through struggle with [controlling] the affections …
  • The Way of the yogi; works to obtain the same mastery of the attention (as before: ‘self mastery’) through struggle with [controlling] mental habits and capabilities. (Source)

How much of this is relevant to us as teachers in order to require mastery in the classroom?

Gurdjieff insisted that these paths cultivated certain faculties at the expense of others. Could this be similar to the fixed versus growth mindset that so many of us discuss today? The goal, to produce a well-balanced, responsive and capable student, who can deal with all that life may offer. Gurdjieff made it clear that it was necessary to cultivate a way that integrated and combined the traditional three ways.

One of Gurdjieff’s most famous students, was Peter D. Ouspensky, a Russian esoteric philosopher, who met Gurdjieff in 1916 and spent the next few years studying with him, later forming his own independent groups which also focused on the Fourth Way. He wrote In Search of the Miraculous about his experiences with Gurdjieff. There are images of The Fourth Way here and a good explanation of its meaning here. (It may be worth a quick glance for context)

Mastery and Memory:

If we wish our students to truly ‘master’ our subject, then as teachers we need to be ‘truly self-aware’ of what is going on in the classroom. We too must acquire mastery in the classroom. One solution I firmly believe can help us achieve this is IRIS Connect. To self-observe one’s own practice and observe how students learn in your classroom, is made much easier with video observations; observing colleagues and keeping your classroom doors open to/for your peers.

For us to fully understand, what knowledge, understanding, comprehension, familiarity, command, grasp is being learnt is being learnt in the classroom, we must first understand what is going on in the classroom from a teaching perspective. We need to learn to amass mastery in the classroom.  To do this, a teacher must be able to do so many of the ‘things’ that we are not taught on a BEd, or a PGCE, or with Teach First programme. That understanding what goes on in the classroom and how you say something, what you do and where you position yourself in the class, can only be fully understood, with direct classroom experience; observations and development of self.

What we say and how we say it, our verbal and non-verbal interactions with students play a vital part in the classroom. Of course, this is not all that is required, but these are fundamental to what we do as teachers and how we enable students to master and learn (to capture in the memory).


Episodic Memory:

Memory for specific episodes in advance from personal experience, occurring in a particular context of time and place. This type of memory is all about retrieval.

Semantic Memory:

Memory for general knowledge, such as the meanings associated with particular words and shapes, without reference to any specific contextual episode, (contrasts with episodic memory).

“Most tests of memory involve the direct testing of what the subject is able to consciously remember and report which is known as explicit memory. Tests of recall and recognition of both examples of explicit memory, and for many years this was the only type of member to be studied.” (Source)


If you want to be masters of our classrooms and for our students to have implicit memory functions so they can self-master the attention of subjects, we need to develop a level of awareness as classroom practitioners. Claxton (1998) suggests that implicit memory may also be the mechanism underlying intuition, or ‘hunches.’ How true is this of us as teachers? How often have we planned a lesson based on a hunch of what they student know/don’t know and where we hope to take them? Or during the actual lesson, develop a level of intuition and moved our learning objectives to suit specific contexts within the classroom?

I’m sure your answer is often, frequently and always.


In Mastery Teaching (MC Hunter, 1982), Increasing Instructional Effectiveness in Primary and Secondary Schools, there are three key questions in the introduction;

  1. What content to teach next?
  2. What the student will do to learn and to demonstrate learning has occurred?
  3. What the teacher will do to facilitate the acquisition of that learning?

“… it is important for teachers to identify consciously and deliberately the decisions they must make in each category and base their decisions on … validated knowledge. Equally important is the teacher’s ability to “read” signals from students, and to assess the learning situation, so necessary adjustments can be made.”

This cannot be mastered without practical experience. In Hunter’s research, the conclusion states that the first decision of teaching is based on content, the what of teaching, the second decision is directed at the student behaviour that makes learning possible, the student’s how of learning. In many blogs by, I have often argued that the ‘why‘ of teaching is often left behind in so many of our day-to-day decisions in the classroom.

If we could all consider the why of teaching, we may then be able to equip ourselves, as well as our students, to acquire mastery in the classroom.

Tweet your thoughts here.

Do I have to tweet?


I’ve read several books written by G.I. Gurdjieff. His published books include:

You can find other academic papers on Mastery Teaching below, such as;


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mastery In The Classroom by @TeacherToolkit

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  • 28th December 2014 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for this. In terms of memory I use the analogy of a computers RAM and ROM with classes. I look at how file structures enable easier retrieval as opposed to dropping facts / points into the wide expanse of your memory. It often sparks a small discussion especially if exemplified with the file management that many students still engage in of the document 1,2 etc naming and then find ideas hard to retrieve.

    Your thoughts appreciated.

    • 28th December 2014 at 12:40 pm

      It’s an interesting take on memory Andy. How does this work in practice in the classroom?

      • 28th December 2014 at 12:51 pm

        When looking at learning over time for example for GCSE course. Develop revision mentality as an ongoing exercise with less stress at the yr 11 end. For example Yr 10 geographers mind mapping unit key points from first term. If materials prepared well, the revision framework will be there from the start. Used memory / file structure idea to look at how to organise ideas to enable retrieval. This links to an emphasis on the final exam as a cup final match. Know the rules of the game and develop tactics so that in May / June of Yr 11 one can walk onto the pitch and be ready to utilise revised skills / facts in a situation tan you are comfortable in.

        Rambling explanation – but does idea come across. Part of developing a department where spoon feeding is not our strategy but applied thinking and developing skill based learners can lead to I proved GCSE outcomes.

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