Nine steps to getting maths mastery right in your primary school
I’m head of maths in a very large inner-city primary. We have 745 children, all of whom have English as an additional language. We’re not short of challenges to tackle. So why did we choose to introduce maths mastery?
Some people still believe that teaching for mastery is about learning by rote: dull, and difficult to teach. But it isn’t. Some believe that shifting to this approach means a significant overhaul of the school. It doesn’t.
Mastery has been an amazing success at our school and helped to improve our SATs results.
So how do you go about introducing teaching for mastery in your school and what are the potential pitfalls? Here are nine essentials you need to consider.
1. Don’t be half-hearted about maths mastery
I really immersed myself in teaching for mastery. Once I’d had a training session, I was pretty evangelical on the subject. I dragged the deputy head from my school and a colleague from another school to do some training, too. Teaching for mastery needs to be a whole-school approach and one every teacher is enthusiastic about.
2. Get the funding right – even though money is scarce
Engaging with the NCETM (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics) and our local Maths Hub enabled us to secure funding from a research project. This allowed us to introduce teaching for mastery in one class and for two teachers to be trained. But I didn’t want just one class in the Year 1 group adopting teaching for mastery. So we decided to find the money to introduce the programme in all three classes and for all the teachers in the year to be trained. Our teachers returned to school from the training sessions saying, ‘Why haven’t we always taught like this?’
3. Training is key if maths mastery is to be successful
One of my roles at the Maths Hub is to support teachers in my region to introduce teaching for mastery in other schools. Each of the 35 maths hubs now has eight Mastery Specialist Teachers, all with the remit of supporting schools as they adopt teaching for mastery. I get contacted every week by schools that have pretty much thrown mastery textbooks at teachers and thought that would do the trick. But if you don’t understand the books, you can’t teach the method.
You need to adopt a really strategic and well thought-out approach; if you don’t understand the pedagogy and have secure subject knowledge, teaching for mastery won’t have an impact on attainment. The starting point has got to be the children.
Unlike conventional approaches to maths, with teaching for mastery you don’t label children as less/more able to learn maths. We have a really firm belief that all our children can do maths. Some might struggle, but we know that they can all get there in the end. The whole-class approach calls for a really big change in attitude and it’s essential to understand the concept behind the pedagogy.
4. Take it slowly
We introduced the mastery textbooks gradually. We chose the Maths – No Problem! series, which has been chosen by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics and the Department for Education for use in the maths hub programme.
5. Lesson structure is key
The lesson structure is very important: it starts with an anchor task, a very practical activity all children can access. The anchor task might involve characters walking along the road picking flowers. The children will be asked how many flowers have been picked.
6. Timing is everything: split lessons
We do two half-hour lessons with a break in the middle. There’s lots of discussion, with ideas ping-ponging back and forth. Children will do some maths and then teachers will question them on it and talk about it. Then we have a break. Children come to the board and explain their working before and after the break to show what they’ve learned. Every time a lesson stops, we can pick up the children who are struggling and provide additional help.
7. Make it practical
Using carefully chosen practical resources, such as base ten or counters reveal the mathematical concepts to children and the workbooks help with practice and are particularly helpful with children who may be struggling.
8. Watch for pitfalls
We get inundated with emails from teachers – up to 20 a day
- asking for advice, training and follow-up training. There’s no doubt that the main hurdle that teaching for mastery has to overcome is teachers’ anxiety about teaching maths. Secure subject knowledge is required if teaching for mastery is to succeed. If you don’t have maths subject knowledge you wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with the textbook. I hear horror stories about schools using three or four different text books in a lesson in order to achieve differentiation – but the key principle of teaching for mastery is a whole-class approach! Another common mistake is to use the textbooks but have no practical resources.
We find that one lesson can take three or four days. We don’t move on until all the children have really ‘got it’. But we hear from schools that try to finish a lesson in 15-20 minutes!
9. Get parents on board
It’s a challenge for teachers to get their heads around the mastery method, so imagine how the parents feel! It’s really important to make sure they are kept informed about the style of maths teaching at their children’s school. Every term we invite parents to come into the school for a workshop where they work alongside their children during a lesson. We also run additional bespoke workshops for parents of children who are struggling. We don’t want parents to teach their children maths at home – we believe teaching is our job! The workshops are to ensure that parents are not scared by the maths and don’t feel anxious.
One of the great things about teaching for mastery is its emphasis on communication and the way the children are encouraged to talk about what they’re doing. We don’t accept one-word answers from children in our classes; they have to speak in complete sentences. We find that this increased fluency in spoken language has a knock-on effect on literacy. And as far as maths is concerned, we’ve moved from a SATs score from somewhere in the 60s to 99 per cent in KS2 at level 4 and 100 per cent at KS1 in 2015. Teaching for mastery really does add up.