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Mastery in maths - how can primary schools plan for this?

Wednesday, 3 December 2014
Maths Mastery is obviously the buzzword for teaching and learning maths at the moment. The evidence from ‘high-attaining’ countries is providing the DfE with plenty of arguments in favour of moving us towards a mastery approach here in the UK. But are we ready?

Some interesting articles have been written on the NCETM site about maths mastery - their DfE-funded ‘England-China Mathematics Education Innovation Research Project’ has been the catalyst for this. Over 60 teachers from England have visited Shanghai to observe mastery teaching, followed-up by Shanghai teachers coming over here to demonstrate their methods and support teachers in teaching using their mastery approach.
I just hope that the teachers from Shanghai have time to observe some of the good practice going on in primary schools here to meet the needs of the children in our schools. It would be interesting to know how they would manage the wide range in a class that we experience. Attainment, SEN and English as a second language are just a few of the layers of planning and teaching considered daily by most teachers. Differentiated teaching is something that is incredibly difficult to do, but is what makes our child-centred, learning-focussed, individualized approach so unique – it should be something to be proud of, but has instead become almost unworkable and impossible to have success in. Oh, and as a by-product, our standing in the world league-tables obviously suffers. Of course it does – teachers are trying to raise the self-esteem and attainment of all our children and struggling to manage the planning and teaching of an overloaded SATs-led curriculum with Ofsted expecting every child making progress in every lesson. Fear of losing track of each child’s individual progress is driving this ‘over-differentiated’ teaching approach.
A surprise, and possible concern, is that the alternative being advocated is based on ‘Singapore Maths’, which places textbooks firmly at the centre of the approach. In fact the DfE funded NCETM Maths Hubs have just bought in a whole textbook series to use as part of their CPD programme and for schools to then invest in.

After 20 years in the wilderness we finally have the green-light to use maths textbooks in primary schools again. I certainly won’t be sorry to see the back of homemade or web-found photocopiable sheets. Used properly, good quality textbooks can support teaching. The concern is that, instead of appropriate use of text books, there will be an over-reliance on them in the classroom, as we had with SPMG in the 1980s.

However, we do have the opportunity to change our teaching approach without relying on textbooks. A new National Curriculum with the push towards a mastery approach may be just what we need to give teachers a little more control of the progress the children make in school.

I’m lucky enough to get into a lot of classrooms and observe teachers teaching primary maths. It is always a privilege and I’m often staggered at the work put in to meet the needs of all the children in a class. So how can we channel all that effort put in to differentiate our teaching and change it to an effective mastery approach? 

Here are some suggestions for teachers to plan for a mastery approach that I given when working with schools using my Broadbent Maths Planning Menu:
1. Look at the focus for the next unit of work and carry out a short assessment of the class in the week before to work out what they know and understand. Find this out and you can then plan accordingly.
2. Have clear objectives and expected outcomes for the end of the 2-week unit for the whole class, but identify the small steps of progression to fine-tune the teaching.
3. Mastery is all about representing maths so that it makes sense to the children, so carefully plan the models, images and language that connect the maths. The ‘Singapore-bar’ is one model  - there are many more!
4. Don’t put a ceiling on the expectation – give all children the chance to access the learning with varying support when needed. If there are gaps in understanding use the small steps of progression to go back and reinforce the teaching. Give some specific practice of this, but keep it short and specific and try to build up again systematically.
5. Base the maths around problem-solving and a context - add breadth and depth to the learning. This will help to connect the different areas of maths, as well as making it purposeful, enjoyable and challenging.
6. AfL, careful questioning, discussion, support, active learning, exploration, investigating, relevant practice – this is the flavor of a lesson, with modeling where necessary and scaffolded learning a feature so that children are guided towards becoming independent learners.

Mountain top
So what is maths mastery?
Here are the principles and features that characterise this approach, as explained by the NCETM in their article on Mastery approaches to mathematics and the new national curriculum:

• Teachers reinforce an expectation that all pupils are capable of achieving high standards in mathematics.

• The large majority of pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace. Differentiation is achieved by emphasising deep knowledge and through individual support and intervention.

• Teaching is underpinned by methodical curriculum design and supported by carefully crafted lessons and resources to foster deep conceptual and procedural knowledge.

• Practice and consolidation play a central role. Carefully designed variation within this builds fluency and understanding of underlying mathematical concepts in tandem.

• Teachers use precise questioning in class to test conceptual and procedural knowledge, and assess pupils regularly to identify those requiring intervention so that all pupils keep up. 

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