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It’s Time To Stop Treating Mastery With Derision And Start Paying Attention

It may be that there are teaching approaches which work in learning environments very different to our own – but that's not to say they can't also work here, says Jemma Sherwood….

Jemma Sherwood
by Jemma Sherwood
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About three years ago I started hearing people talk about ‘mastery’ in mathematics.

I don’t know what it’s like in other areas of the country, but where I am, in the semi-rural midlands, not much filtered through other than the odd NCETM article, or online news report about how English teachers were to learn teaching from counterparts in Shanghai.

As with many such initiatives – especially those that suggest teachers aren’t doing their job well enough – this talk was largely met with derision. I would hear about how wonderful the teaching profession supposedly was in China and Singapore…

“They only teach two lessons a day and the rest of the time is devoted to planning, marking and intervention.”

“Their culture, it’s different. Students respect teachers there – they want to work hard, they want to learn.”

“They probably go home and spend hours with a private tutor before waking up at the crack of dawn and starting the whole shebang again.”

…and with that, the whole idea would be dismissed and confined to the ‘fads and fashions’ bin along with ‘learning styles’, ‘project-based learning’ and marking acronyms, before things carried on as normal.

Missing out on something genuinely good

‘Normal’, in this case, means hardworking teachers trying desperately to get kids to remember how to plot a straight line graph so that we can teach them y = mx + c. Teachers lamenting the students who always waste time finding a common denominator when multiplying fractions. Teachers bemoaning the fact that half of their students can’t work out which box of washing powder is better value.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have a fully-staffed department full of maths specialists and teach enthusiastic children. Others are less fortunate, in that we have to conscript the PE teachers to teach KS3 (Thank you, wonderful PE teachers!), lack complete schemes of work or assessment schedules and have children rolling up late to lessons determined to do anything but listen to an old person talk about maths. (“My dad says he never learnt any maths and it didn’t do him any harm, Miss…”)

In our fraught, overworked state, we often don’t have the time to think about anything new, and therefore run the risk of missing out on something genuinely good. It’s time for us consider some harsh facts – much as policymakers did, before they started looking further afield.

The power to effect change

Over the last four years, an average of 39.6% of our students didn’t get a C in GCSE Maths.

Stop for a moment and take that in – 40% of our young people, year-in, year-out, fail the qualification designed to check that they’ve learned what’s expected over 12 years of schooling.

Politics aside, that’s extremely concerning. Do we really believe that 40% of people are not capable of learning what is, if we’re completely honest, quite straightforward mathematics in 12 years? I certainly don’t.

In fact, I agree with Mark McCourt when he points out that the real travesty is that 85% of our students don’t get the highest grades (84.7% on average didn’t achieve an A or an A* over the last four years), because only the highest grades mean you’ve learnt the subject properly.

The reasons for these figures are numerous and complex. I’ve mentioned the main culprits already – a shortage of subject specialists, endemic poor behaviour in classrooms and a fashionable national antipathy to mathematics. These aren’t problems that classroom teachers can solve tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we have no power to effect change.

What we can do is adapt our teaching in light of evidence.

Back to basics

How many times have you wished you could stop the scheme of work and go back to basics with your class? You have to teach them to collect like terms, when they can’t even work out how many eggs to use when cooking for six instead of four.

The thing is, the reason they can’t scale the recipe is because they’ve never learnt to do that properly. The processes and proportional reasoning involved never became automatic – and that’s because two lessons here and there, before moving onto scatter graphs or some probability, means there’s not enough time spent thinking about the maths in order to make it stick.

In Shanghai and other ‘high-performing’ jurisdictions such as Singapore it is estimated that by 15, their average student is three years ahead of our average student. The way they structure and teach their mathematics lessons is very different to what we do, so there must be something we can learn.

In curriculum terms, the difference is mastery. They spend longer on the fundamentals. They intervene immediately, should someone need it, and don’t move on until they’re happy that a sufficient majority has ‘mastered’ enough of the content.

Students learning algebra before grasping proportional reasoning; calculating probabilities before knowing how to calculate with fractions; calculating with fractions before knowing their times tables – those are rare occurrences in these jurisdictions.

So now I’m listening. I want to know what I can do to make that happen here. If mastery can go some way to effecting that change, I need to know about it.

Jemma Sherwood is head of mathematics at Haybridge High School and Sixth Form, an SLE and previously a finalist for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School at the Pearson Teaching Awards; she blogs at and tweets as @jemmaths

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