Deepening understanding in primary maths

Explore what it means to deepen understanding in primary maths as part of a mastery approach, as well as its impact upon differentiation

Tes Resources Team

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Find out how to help primary students to think more deeply as part of a mastery approach to maths

Helping students to deepen their understanding of a topic is fundamental to mastery teaching. But, what does this actually mean and how can it be encouraged in the classroom?

If you're not sure what mastery is, check out this handy introduction.

Firstly, deepening understanding is about going beyond getting the right answer. Too often, learners are asked to complete worksheets on which questions are presented in exactly the same way. By introducing a mixture of part-whole models, bar models and word problems, pupils start to recognise that the same skill can be applied in many ways. Variation is key. If they aren't spotting the patterns, they aren't demonstrating a deeper understanding.

Using questions designed to challenge, mastery teaching requires students to explain their reasoning, think more laterally, make generalisations, suggest predictions and much more. By asking higher order questions and getting pupils to prove their work, teachers are laying the foundation for more complex mathematics.

Secondly, deepening understanding allows for more flexible differentiation. Moving away from the traditional set up of three ability groups, it is important to acknowledge that the students who need more scaffolding, or to be stretched, changes on a daily basis. Mastery teachers often spend longer modelling a new concept at the start of the lesson so they can see the progress that each student is making and set appropriate tasks. By the end of the lesson, however, all pupils should reach the same point.

Teaching for mastery believes that everybody has the potential to deepen their understanding and encourages teachers to develop a growth mindset culture in their classroom. Setting more open-ended tasks and problem-solving questions ensures that all pupils are challenged. As such, differentiation is achieved by going deeper into the learning objective.

Finally, deepening understanding is about restructuring teaching topics. Rather than establishing fixed planning for a week of lessons, teachers should react to how their class are working and be able to recap content, delve deeper or introduce alternative activities easily. On the whole, topics need to be tackled at a slower pace.

While still being in line with the National Curriculum, a whole-school mastery approach increases the amount of time spent on a topic, rather than touching on it briefly at numerous points in a year. These sample schemes of work from the White Rose Maths Hub and Mathematics Mastery offer a clearer idea of how this works in practice.

Deepening understanding in your classroom

This element of mastery gives students the space to fully comprehend a concept, which improves their mathematical understanding in the long term. To give you a few ideas on how to deepen understanding, we’ve selected these useful resources:

Decimal calculation problems Recognising shapes activity
Place value mystery numbers Decimals talk task
Short division practice cards Circles independent extension

This blog post was written with grateful thanks to Jenny Lewis, Primary Maths Specialist at the White Rose Maths Hub, and Helen Williams, Director of Primary at Mathematics Mastery, for their insights.

Want to know more about primary maths mastery? Check out our collection of free resources, quality assured by mastery experts and helpfully mapped by topic to year groups and learning objectives.