Teaching for Mastery: changing mindset in maths
Our schools teach mathematics through a mastery approach, which develops in children a deep understanding of key maths concepts and allows them to make links across the different strands. This means they acquire a deep, long-term, secure and adaptable understanding of the subject. Here we catch up with John Canavan, Assistant Headteacher and Year 5/6 teacher at Hatton Park Primary School; and Malcolm Watson, Year 4 teacher at Histon and Impington Junior School, about the development of Teaching for Mastery across the Trust, the impact on children, and their support for other schools.
How did teaching for mastery begin for you?
JC: “It goes back to when I was at Histon and Impington Junior School with Lesley Birch as Headteacher. Through Lesley I was encouraged to complete a maths course at the University of Northampton, and I was offered the opportunity to go on a Department for Education (DfE) exchange programme to Shanghai as only one of two teachers from Cambridgeshire. I went over to Shanghai for two weeks, observed maths lessons and attended lectures at the local university; and Shanghai teachers then came here. I encouraged Histon and Impington Juniors to change to the maths mastery approach and it went from there. I have been supported all the way by some fantastic colleagues.”
MW: “I joined Histon and Impington Junior School in 2015 from a school in Kent, where I was previously maths leader. Not long after I became a trained maths mastery specialist through the Cambridge Maths Hub, which is also operating in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Mastery is championed by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, and there are five big ideas in Teaching for Mastery. All schools in the Trust have been through the mastery programme. Smaller steps in lessons was key: from an education system perspective we could not replicate exactly what was delivered in China.”
What has been the biggest change in approach?
JC: “Before we did a range of different things, including taking children outside the classroom to work at a slower pace, but basically this only increased the gap. Our approach was clearly not working for all pupils. We want everyone to learn together, everyone has access to the same learning, fluency, problem-solving and reasoning, and we also looked carefully at our use of language. This really helped lower attaining children feel part of the class rather than being separate and working outside away from their peers. We have tailored these principles to the needs of our children and it has worked in terms of attainment and progress.”
What other factors have supported the success?
MW: “Looking at other schools I have worked with I can honestly say that turnover of staff is a huge issue. You can find that schools we supported a few years ago now have different teams in place, so staff leave and they can go backwards. CPET does not have a high turnover of staff, so we have that consistency, and one of the reasons for that is the professional development opportunities we are given and the support we have to take that learning forward. Retention of NQTs is a big thing. I know lots of people who have come a long way here, colleagues who now lead the training themselves.”
Tell us more about the school-to-school support.
MW: “Through the Cambridge Maths Hub I have taken on a role to develop training on maths in other schools. I have six schools under my wing – each school visits Histon and Impington Juniors every half-term and we take one of the five mastery ideas and look at how that is working in practice. I have undertaken bespoke visits to schools to watch teaching and provide advice, for example around lesson planning, too. I am also delivering some school-to-school support through the Fenland and East Cambridgeshire Opportunity Area, funded by the DfE, as is John. These projects span 18 months to two years.”
JC: “I will go into schools and sit and listen to their approach to maths, ask what they are doing and how they are finding it; a mutually professional dialogue which is also a learning process for me. Support can include lesson design, or other areas they feel they need help with, and all this has been delivered in Zoom during the pandemic. It takes years to bring about change. I will have conversations with the Head and senior leaders. They then take this knowledge into planning, in class scrutiny, but training is one thing and they need to make sure it happens and is continually maintained. Then they need to continually monitor and support teachers.”
What advice would you give to other schools embarking on the mastery journey?
MW: “The Teaching for Mastery should be seen as a continuum. It is not happening every day in the classroom perfectly, but there has been real progression and ordinary classroom teachers are now assistant heads/maths leads. In opportunity area schools, especially, it is about changing mindsets. Primary schools are obviously measured on SATs, but it is at what point and how the emphasis on preparing pupils for tests is replaced by developing a deeper understanding through the teaching of maths.”
JC: “Firstly, there needs to be whole-school approach and you have to bring staff along with you. A little every now and then, which allows people to see the potential of mastery. Secondly, be realistic on timescales – this is not a year-long piece of work, it takes two, three or four years to see the impact. Again, small steps, starting at fluency for knowledge and developing teachers’ understanding of effective use of language. This way it becomes less onerous and you see the benefit straight away. Thirdly, give ownership – hear colleagues’ ideas, you cannot be regimented, but you need to be realistic in terms of not diluting the mastery approach.”
How do you reflect on your impact?
JC: “I have always had a passion for maths. I love to see children grow and develop, and foster a love for the subject, and we have always sought to counter the national picture of ‘can’t do’ maths. Before maths mastery, children did not have a deep understanding, the knowledge and the big ideas behind it, and were procedural mathematicians. This was impacting on GCSE results and beyond, because the understanding was not there. We want to create critical thinkers, rigorous learners, and build deep understanding of concepts. Every school is judged by results of course. You always need to respond to the children in the building, you cannot shirk that, but there is a bigger picture. If the children are happy, if they are enjoying themselves, the learning comes.”
MW: “I have delivered Headteacher training on what a mastery strategy and lessons might look like, and my thought is that building from foundation up to Year 6 develops confidence and efficiency, and a by-product of that is results come. But actually changing mindset on approach to the teaching of maths can have a deeper impact on children than one that simply seeks to prepare them for national tests.”