Four steps to making maths mastery work in practice

There are a few small tweaks that primary teachers can make to their classroom practice that will pave the way for mastery approaches in maths, says this Year 6 teacher

John Bee

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Maths mastery is here, and here to stay. If your school has not already adopted mastery approaches, it is only a matter of time before you get pulled into the inevitable CPD session that will change that.

The ultimate aim of learning in this way is to develop mastery — a deep and conceptual understanding of the whole breadth of mathematics. This replaces recent dogma surrounding rapid and accelerated progress, sometimes during individual lessons.

In theory, a mastery approach enables all pupils to succeed, whatever their socio-economic background or prior attainment, as long as they are given appropriate learning experiences.

However, making sure that those learning experiences happen is not always easy. So, here are my four tips for making maths mastery work in practice:

1. Have high expectations of all learners

If mastery promotes success for all, traditional differentiation may actually lead to low expectations. Delivering a session on missing angles and giving cognitively more complex problems to children perceived to be the most able can be damaging for those children who are given less complex problems and have likely had less complex problems for much of their schooling.

It's time to stop acting like mathematics is for clever people. Having high expectations of all learners is the first step to adopting a mastery approach in your classroom.

2. Encourage pupils to seek support

Although you may not need to differentiate in traditional ways, allowing fluid and flexible groupings based on understanding can really support mastery approaches. Children who need support with missing angles may actually need to deepen their understanding with ratio and proportion.

Knowing each child well will lead to more personalised provision. Give all children the same task and same expectations, but encourage those who require support to seek it from the teacher or their peers.

3. Teach mathematical communication

For mastery approaches to succeed, children need to be able to fully express and articulate their ideas. This means teaching them language and communication skills that will support understanding.

Encourage answers in full sentences and constantly use mathematical language in class discussion. Similarly, when children are posed with a problem in their books, ask them to answer in full sentences, explaining themselves as clearly and succinctly as possible. Using sentence steps can be useful to scaffold this process initially.

4. Design activities that promote reasoning

Of course, questions and activities need to be aligned to a mastery approach for this to be truly successful. That means designing them with reasoning skills in mind.

For example, rather than giving children questions such as “2 x 10 =” or “4 x 10 =”, perhaps give them a rule to explore, justify and explain. One instance could be, "Does multiplying by 10 always adds a zero to the answer?"

Children can then use reasoning to support their answers, predictions and conclusions. You should also give careful consideration to the visualisation of mathematics, which can support pupils’ reasoning. Concrete, pictoral and abstract representations should be a staple of every classroom.

John Bee is a Year 6 teacher at South Street Community Primary School in Gateshead. He tweets @mrbeeteach and blogs at

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