Will mastering maths mastery put England on top of the world?

14th July 2017 at 00:00
The maths mastery approach, adapted from the way children are taught in Singapore and Shanghai, is proving popular in primary schools. But has it come too late to stave off a collapse in the subject's popularity among older pupils?

It is the maths teaching technique credited with taking East Asian countries to the top of global education rankings.

But now there are hopes that maths mastery could have similar success in England’s classrooms. A Tes survey of 1,100 teachers reveals that six out of 10 believe that using the approach raises pupils’ engagement. And half say that they have seen attainment levels rise since they adopted the method.

More than 80 per cent of those surveyed said that they now felt confident in their ability to teach maths after adopting the technique.

Helen Drury, executive director of the Mathematics Mastery professional development programme, believes that the approach provides a counterbalance to the high-stakes testing culture of English education.

“The messages around mastery are about a much deeper learning than that,” she says. “And that’s what teachers really went into teaching for.

“Taking more time in the first place, so students understand a concept, and then building on that – it just works.”

The government is investing £41 million in supporting the mastery method of maths teaching in primary schools. It involves all pupils working on the same lesson content at the same time. The class does not move on to the next part of the curriculum until all members have grasped the concept being studied. The aim is for all children to believe that, if they work hard enough, they can succeed at maths.

But Sue Pope, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, argues that breaking down the curriculum in this way can prove counterproductive. “Atomising the curriculum into tiny steps, and you can’t move on until you’ve mastered one step?” she says. “Maths doesn’t always work like that. It can take a long time before the penny drops and things start to fit together.”

The mastery method is used in Shanghai and Singapore, both of which regularly achieve high placings in the Programme for International Student Assessment survey of different countries’ education systems.

‘Teachers must be brave’

Drury says that the approach emphasises the connections within mathematics. She believes that the East Asian success with the method shows that, while adopting the approach can feel risky for teachers, it does pay off.

“It’s quite a brave thing to do,” she says. “The closer the pupils are to taking primary Sats or GCSEs, the higher the pressure on teachers to focus on exam preparation, even though they’d get better results by focusing on depth and understanding. Only once you’ve started doing it do you see that it gets you the results you need as well.”

Pope agrees that mastery teaching methods have clearly played a part in the success of Shanghai and Singapore in international league tables. But she argues that use of this approach is not the only thing that marks out East Asian education systems. “East Asian countries are completely different,” she says. “The culture, the expectations.”

For example, she says, the lack of any social-security system can mean that highly educated children are the only means that parents have to protect themselves from penury in old age.

“After school and at the weekend, you go for extra lessons,” Pope says. “And, in Shanghai, teachers teach just two lessons a day. Their curriculum is not meddled with by ministers. Educational experts are trusted.

“We cannot just import methods from other countries and expect them to work for us.”

Marina Branco, maths lead at Primrose Hill Primary in North London, agrees. Though her school has adopted the maths mastery method, she also emphasises the importance of adapting the East Asian approach to suit her own pupils’ needs.

“In places like Singapore, primary maths teachers only teach maths,” she says. “They have a lot more time to analyse what works and doesn’t work. That’s the thing that’s a challenge for us in the UK: we don’t have much time to reflect on it.”

Maths education resources to help schools use the mastery approach can be found at tes.com/teachingformastery


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