Teaching for mastery: The pros and cons

Written by Jo Lees
Jo has taught and led mathematics in primary and secondary settings. She is a former member of ACME and is on the MA committee for CPD. In her current post, apart from co-authoring The Shanghai Maths Project for Collins, Jo leads a large local authority maths advisory team, working with teachers and learners from EYFS to KS5. 

The ‘new’ primary curriculum for mathematics in England has now had a few years to become embedded in practice. In this blog, I consider some of the pros and cons of teaching for mastery in mathematics and look at some of the practical ways schools can tackle them.

What are the benefits of teaching for mastery in maths?

Enquiry-based learning and the CPA approach
There is no doubt that some of the approaches developed in response to the 2014 national curriculum requirements are having a positive impact in class. Teachers report that enquiry-based learning, based around the concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) approach is supporting a change in mindset and the development of a deeper understanding into the fundamental structures of mathematics.Girl happy doing her maths work

Mastery is achievable for ALL pupils
Lessons are becoming more challenging as pupils begin to explore areas of mathematics in greater depth, spending more time on fewer concepts. The belief that success and access for all is possible, not just desirable, has been consolidated through the use of CPA and a multi-representational approach. Looking at one area of mathematics in lots of different ways has opened the door for those learners who previously struggled with repetitive, procedural algorithms as the only way to calculate and problem solve. Teachers have long recognised that a wide range of learning preferences exist in their classrooms, they are now seeing those preferences and needs being well met through the ‘teaching for mastery’ approach.

Variation Theory
For many learners, abstract drill and practice does not have meaning. The multi-representational approach has enabled them to make sense of their mathematics. In addition to this, the use of variation, where a short sequence of carefully crafted, linked examples are offered, has meant that teachers and learners together are making rich connections across different areas of mathematics.

What are the barriers to success when teaching for mastery in maths? 

Curriculum pressures
If considered as a group of objectives to be covered, grouped into domains, the curriculum often appears to be overloaded and teachers can feel over-whelmed at the planning stage. Teachers feel time-pressured and unable to spend as long as they would like to on some areas.

Ensuring all pupils’ needs are being metGirl frustrated with her maths work
In addition to this, the need to provide challenge and support for all learners in a mixed attainment classroom, paying attention to those pupils with SEND and those who require a challenge at greater depth, can feel like a step too far!

Time and money
Schools often feel that investing in mastery materials or a scheme can be too expensive, lack of money and time are often the main barriers to successful implementation of different pedagogies and approaches.

Out of teacher’s comfort zone
Teachers also tell us that they would like more support on those strategies that have been linked in recent years to teaching for mastery, predominantly variation and the use of the bar model.

How the Shanghai Maths Project supports a mastery approach to teaching maths:
As part of The Shanghai Maths Project author team, I have aimed to help address some of the challenges of teaching for mastery.

The materials offered in the Shanghai Maths Project are specifically designed to build on understanding and representations, making conceptual links throughout. This consistency of approach across the programme ensures that pupils and teachers can build on what they already know to explore and create new learning.The Shanghai Maths Project

The Teacher’s Guides provide a clear and concise set of ideas for lessons, with all activities linking directly to the pupil materials and to the fundamental objectives to be explored. The Teacher’s Guides also clearly explain how to provide further support for some and a deeper challenge for others; closely connected to the whole-class activities to ensure a fully inclusive setting for all learners.

The Shanghai Maths project offers an affordable teaching-for-mastery scheme. The lessons offered in the Teacher’s Guides use readily available resources meaning there is no need for the teacher to spend hours preparing them. The lessons also draw on materials that are often already in class such as number cards, number-lines, arrow cards and base 10 material.

The Shanghai Maths Project integrates variation theory and the bar model into the programme so they are embedded in teaching and learning. Consistent approaches throughout the programme show teachers how variation supports the journey to mastery at every level and enables learners to make that journey, using models and images that make sense to them.

Final thoughts
Teaching for mastery in mathematics is a recognition that all learners can succeed. The move away from setting and putting ceilings on outcomes, where prior attainment defines your mathematical experience from 5-16, is one of the most positive things our profession has achieved in recent years. It isn’t easy, teaching never is, but as we develop our practice and fully utilise a multi-representational approach that looks across the domains and makes rich connections within a lesson, our learners will reap the rewards. As teachers we want learners to leave education with a deep understanding of the fundamentals of mathematics and secure foundations upon which to build in later life. It is my belief that teaching for mastery provides such a foundation and it is definitely worth the struggle.


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