Maths mastery uncovered

Written by: Tony Staneff | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Maths mastery is the latest policy being supported by the government. Tony Staneff explores the truth behind
some common maths mastery myths and outlines four ways to kick-start your school’s journey to mastery

It has been two years since Nick Gibb, the schools minister, announced that the mastery approach to maths is set to become a standard fixture in England’s primary schools, but how close are we to really understanding what mastery is and how to go about embedding it?

In my work with schools across the country, I’ve seen time and time again how the mastery approach to maths, when taught well, can empower pupils to work hard and succeed by tackling the same concepts at the same time.

While mastery can achieve deeper learning and understanding for every child in the classroom, there is still a great deal of confusion and hesitation when it comes to this approach to maths. So, here I explore the truth behind some of the most common misconceptions and outline four ways that you can start to embed mastery across your primary school.

Q: Is there a single, clear definition for mastery in maths?

When people talk about “mastery”, they are often talking about a mastery curriculum, mastery teaching and mastery goals – all of which can mean different things to different people. Although there are many different descriptions of mastery in maths, there are some common features, including an emphasis on success for all, development of conceptual understanding and a focus on mathematical structures. Many mastery definitions would also advocate keeping the whole class together, not moving on until ideas are understood and using a concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) approach.

Q: Does mastery have to be East Asian?

No it doesn’t. The term “mastery” is used to describe various approaches, but in the UK it has in recent years become almost synonymous with South East Asian approaches from places like Shanghai and Singapore. These jurisdictions perform consistently highly in international league tables, so it is not surprising that the UK and other countries want to learn from them and replicate their success.

However, it isn’t the only way to achieve mastery. Mastery is all about equipping children with a deep understanding of mathematical concepts and, ultimately, developing a generation of competent and curious mathematicians.

Q: Is there no differentiation in mastery?

It is true that, when using a mastery approach, your whole class should be working together, on the same concept and exercises – but that doesn’t mean there is no differentiation. Children who struggle to grasp the concept may need more support by presenting them with different representations and methods that represent the concept until they find something that makes sense to them.

For example, this may mean using a slower, but reliable method, which doesn’t involve having to hold too much information in their working memory. Meanwhile, their peers who grasp a concept quickly should be challenged through rich, deep questions, such as more open-ended problems so they can investigate the same concept on a deeper level.

Q: Is it more difficult to cover the whole maths curriculum with mastery?

Not necessarily. Many mastery schemes organise maths into topics, so children can spend longer on a concept. While this might invoke concern about how to ensure coverage of a packed curriculum, if done correctly this approach will give them a deep and flexible understanding of each concept, enabling them to make connections to other areas of maths.

For example, teaching multiplication is much more straightforward if children have already built up a secure understanding of repeated addition, which in turn is more successful if children understand basic addition. Sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up.

Q: Is it expensive to change our approach to maths?

Changing to a mastery approach doesn’t have to cost a fortune. There are plenty of good low-cost and free resources out there – such as the free-of-charge schemes of work from White Rose Maths. You can use equipment you already have in your classrooms, like counters and dice, and look for real-life examples of maths concepts around you to bring ideas to life. You can also apply for Department for Education-matched funding through your local Maths Hub to help you embed a mastery approach in your school.

Getting started: Four steps

Encourage positivity with maths: It can often be the case that prior attainment causes teachers to assume that some children may not be able to succeed in a new topic. Ask yourself: what are the expectations of children in your school with maths? Are children working on “ability” tables and being pigeon-holed too early?

Promoting a positive and growth mindset towards mathematics is a fundamental part of the mastery approach as teachers are encouraged to ensure that all pupils have, or are given, the background knowledge to succeed and there is no limit placed on their attainment. This should be a constant message delivered throughout the school year.

If pupils are struggling, this doesn’t mean they can’t do maths – it is important to look at the factors affecting achievement in the lesson, for instance do they have the pre-requisite knowledge or is too much content being covered?

Mix up teachers’ lesson-planning: School leaders should encourage teachers to spend longer on topics and to go deeper. Look at a curriculum that takes a small steps approach and avoids covering too much in lessons, too quickly and sending children into cognitive overload.
While forgetting is part of the learning journey for every child, leading academic Daniel Willingham says that “memory is the residue of thought” and so it is important that children are thinking in lessons. Ask teachers to consider how they can structure their lessons to spark curiosity and use plenty of affirming types of questions.

Teach for meaning and understanding: Do pupils need to know that 2 x 5 = 10 or know why 2 x 5 = 10? The most effective way of children understanding mathematics is if the abstract has some meaning and understanding. Encourage teachers to use concrete manipulatives and images such as the bar model. Schools should look for resources that are full of images that link the underpinning mathematics with the abstract calculations.

Seek support: Whether you have the best teachers of maths in the world or those that need more development, we can all keep learning. Steps to improvement can include conducting an audit, getting in touch with your local Maths Hub or looking into funding for DfE-approved textbooks as part of the Teaching for Mastery national programme. Investing in your staff’s CPD as part of a wider development plan for maths is crucial, as is allowing your teachers to do maths together on a regular basis.

  • Tony Staneff is the mastery team leader at White Rose Maths and series editor of Power Maths Key Stage 1, a whole-class mastery programme that has recently joined the list of recommended textbooks supporting teaching for mastery in maths in England. Visit www.pearsonprimary.co.uk/powermathsmastery

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