Mathematics Mastery: a blessing or a curse?

Mathematics Mastery was founded by Dr Helen Drury – a pioneer of teaching and learning for mastery in UK schools – back in 2012. Since then, the programme has been adopted in many schools across the country. Dave Benson, Mathematics Education Coordinator at the University of Derby, discusses the pros and cons of the scheme.

Mastery Mathematics has been adopted as a term by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) since 2014. It has many roots in well-established pedagogical approaches in high-achieving East Asian countries. The NCETM has sought to define it and establish principles for teaching mathematics which help to raise standards in achievement across the primary and secondary sectors in the UK.

What is Mastery of Mathematics?

Defining Mastery Mathematics is in itself a complex business. Helen Drury, founder of the programme, explains the definition when she says:

A mathematical concept or skill has been mastered when, through exploration, clarification, practice and application over time, a person can represent it in multiple ways, has the mathematical language to be able to communicate related ideas, and can think mathematically with the concept so that they can independently apply it to a totally new problem in an unfamiliar situation.

So, ‘mastery’ of a mathematical concept would suggest that we understand it at a deep level. In this context, ‘deep’ is obviously a relative, complex and even subjective term. What is deep for one person may be shallow for another. That said, if a concept has been ‘mastered’, one would expect the learner to be able to apply their knowledge and skills effectively to solve new problems and also to demonstrate a growing ability to explain as well as justify their thinking.

Although complicated to define, many would argue Mathematics Mastery is still persuasive as an idea and potentially supportive to both primary and secondary school practitioners. For example, in the light of new-style Key Stage 2 SAT and GCSE papers, which are expected to assess pupils’ ability to use and apply skills more rigorously, an emphasis on secure understanding, confident reasoning and problem solving skills, rather than on mechanical application of mathematical procedures, certainly feels like a positive and wise aspiration. For me, despite its potentially divisive label, there is something positive and pedagogically persuasive in the intentions of the idea of ‘mastery’. Its emphasis on depth of understanding, over breadth of knowledge and procedural approaches to learning, for example, chimes with my personal philosophy for teaching and learning mathematics.

Does Mathematics Mastery work in the classroom?

For some time, however, my sense has been that we need to move on from a debate about the definition of ‘mastery’ to the much more interesting and challenging idea of classroom implementation and evaluation of experiences. Only that way can we begin to ascertain the potential benefits and shortcomings of a ‘mastery’ approach in our primary and secondary schools. With this in mind, since March 2016 I have worked with more than 100 teachers and 20 schools to explore with them ideas for implementing a ‘mastery’ approach in their classrooms. Throughout my research with these teachers, I have seen both the pros and cons to Mathematics Mastery.

The pros of Mathematics Mastery:

  • Teachers feel less constrained by planning structures and are at ease with the idea of carrying more in their head with less detail in their written plans.
  • Participants see the value of ‘dwelling on’ topics for longer periods as beneficial because it helps provide a more secure base for learning.
  • The balance between ‘pacey’ activities to support fluency and richer exposition and tasks which demand more reasoning and problem-solving skills could be beneficial to pupils’ progress.
  • Teachers have developed their own subject knowledge by engaging with a mastery approach.
  • Many have experimented with grouping pupils in alternative ways. Although grouping by ability is still used, many have begun to recognise the potential benefits to learning of mixed ability groupings.
  • Generally, participants report that pupils are strengthening verbal reasoning skills more obviously than developing confident written explanations of their thinking.

The cons of Mathematics Mastery:

  • Losing the awe and wonder of learning mathematics.
  • Providing adequate intervention.
  • Dealing with differentiated learning needs.
  • Managing pace of lessons and learning.
  • Maintaining variety and creativity in pedagogical approaches.

The question of how to provide intervention for those pupils falling behind the expected pace of learning has persisted among teachers I have worked with. In addition, concerns surrounding headteachers’, parents’ and Ofsted’s views of the changes in approach also remain uppermost in participants’ minds. Understandably, they wonder whether the rationale for and intentions of the changes will be shared and understood, particularly with regard to differentiation and grouping of pupils. Paradoxically, they sense progress in their professional practice yet feel concerned about how they will be judged, particularly if outcomes for their pupils who do not improve.

Would I see Mastery in Mathematics as a blessing or a curse?

With its emphasis on conceptual understanding of mathematics as a complement to confident procedural skills, I would probably go more with the former than the latter. However, a reading of key figures in the history of educational thought on the learning of mathematics, would suggest that mastery is far from a new idea and that similar principles have underpinned much academic writing for more than 40 years.

The ‘Curse of Mastery’ could be the way in which it has become yet another educational initiative which seeks to control rather than liberate the potential of professional practice. With their plethora of strategies for improving outcomes in mathematics across the primary and secondary sectors, recent governments have tended to de-professionalise teachers by denying them genuine opportunities to exercise professional judgement and, instead, creating cultures of fear in which teachers feel constrained to be seen to be engaged in expected practices.

Although well-intended and, in my view, fundamentally persuasive at heart, if Mastery Mathematics becomes regarded as some kind of perfect ‘recipe’, official directive or solution for teaching mathematics, we shall once again find ourselves in a position where the potential to promote children’s learning in mathematics will be lost.

Do you agree with Mastery in Mathematics? What are your thoughts? Comment below and let us know.

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