Maths mastery: Everything you need to know

How the teaching approach inspired by high-performing East Asian education systems can be applied to maths in the UK

Claudia Civinini

maths mastery

Here is everything you need to know about the alliterative maths teaching style favoured by high-performing East Asian education systems.

What is the mastery approach to education?

The concept of mastery learning was developed by Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s, building on work by previous theorists. The bottom line of mastery learning is the idea of allowing students to master a concept before moving on to the next one, including allowing more time or giving extra support.

According to Bloom, this wouldn’t lead to learners having to spend more time overall on a subject, as their solid competence of the basic concepts would enable them to progress more swiftly to more advanced materials.

Mastery teaching aims at getting pupils to master concepts and skills through exploration, clarification, practice and application over time.

What is maths mastery?

In the case of maths, children demonstrate mastery when they can represent concepts or skills in multiple ways, use the correct mathematical language and can independently apply the concept to new problems in unfamiliar situations.

Maths mastery became more popular in the UK after the successes of East Asian nations such as Singapore and China in Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment).

In 2014, the Maths Hubs programme was announced by the Department for Education, together with a project that involved Chinese maths teachers visiting schools in England and helping to train their English colleagues on maths mastery. 

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How is maths mastery taught in classrooms?

According to the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), maths mastery means that pupils develop a “deep, long-term, secure and adaptable” understanding of the subject, mastering one topic securely enough to move on and build on it with another more advanced topic.

And they do it all together – as the approach involves a whole-class curriculum, without setting by ability. In fact, the focus is to ensure that all pupils can master concepts before moving on, with a "no pupil left behind" philosophy.

If a pupil struggles with a concept, early intervention is put in place so that they can move on with the rest of the class. In a typical lesson, the teacher leads interaction, questioning, short tasks, explanation, demonstration and discussion, and practice is valued as a crucial part of learning.

Some key facts, such as multiplication tables and addition facts within 10 are learned to automaticity to avoid cognitive overload.

Most importantly, expectations are consistently high for all students, and a can’t-do attitude is banned from the classroom.

What is the evidence behind maths mastery?

In 2011, UK education charity Ark was awarded a grant by the Education Endowment Foundation to implement a maths mastery programme. The evaluation of the programme found that, overall, maths mastery delivers an improvement in student outcomes for a small cost.

A small study observed that teachers found the new maths mastery sufficiently motivating to change beliefs around the nature of school maths, the value of mistakes, expectations, mindset and ability grouping.

One of the researchers behind the study said, writing for Tes in 2017, that although there is a “strong cultural belief” in Britain on the need to stream by ability, mastery teaching was changing teachers' views.

“[Teachers] are rejecting in-class grouping as simply being no longer relevant due to their new mastery approach and they tend to use mixed pairs of children for work on maths activities,” Professor Pete Boyd wrote.

However, this doesn’t mean that there is no space for differentiation – the assumption was included in a list of "mastery fails" by Mark McCourt, chief executive of LaSalle Education and former director of NCETM , who said he had observed classrooms where high-performing children were not being offered further activities while the class caught up.

“Every single concept in mathematics is infinitely extensible. In a mastery model, the brightest kids go way beyond the demands of the national curriculum and work on incredibly deep maths,” he wrote

The approach was found to bring small positive results, at a relatively low cost-per-pupil. A case study examining a primary school for students with special educational needs, which implemented mastery maths, found it had a positive effect on teaching and learning.

Do UK teachers support the maths mastery approach?

According to a Tes survey, the large majority of teachers believe the approach is beneficial, with half of respondents saying they had seen attainment rise since its implementation.

For teaching resources on primary maths mastery, see here. For tips, see here.

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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