6 steps to Maths mastery

Brent Hughes

Brent Hughes is teacher trainer for the Matific Primary Maths resource (www.matific.com) across Australia and New Zealand, a Google Certified Educator, and a former teacher. He is based in Sydney.

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The term mastery isn’t new. For years, teachers have been working to ensure a child fully understands a skill before moving on. What has changed in the Primary Maths curriculum is the way this is achieved and applied; to a certain extent, that is half the problem.

Thankfully, gone are the days when we had to put children through the dreaded task of reciting mathematical facts and rote learning procedures which lead to a superficial understanding without any ability to apply the knowledge later. However, changing the way we have taught for years is not easy. So what can school leaders do to ensure that their Maths teacher(s) are equipped to ensure high standards in the subject? The first step is ensuring everyone recognises what it really means.

1. Understanding Maths mastery

Maths mastery is complex to teach. Firstly, it changes the way we are all used to teaching; for years we have taught on a skill-by-skill basis. However, it also drives a need for learning resources that support this new approach.

Finding enough problem-solving activities that are increasingly challenging, to enable the students to repeat tasks several times until a concept is really understood, requires high-quality learning resources aligned to the curriculum.

2. A positive approach

My memory of Maths in Primary school was taking times tables home to rote learn, and sheets of paper where you had to draw the hands on a clock in the right place to represent a given time. I remember my teacher almost used to apologise before giving us the next boring task. It was clear that she didn’t like Maths either. Ensuring that all teachers are comfortable teaching Maths and they have enough content and fun problem-solving tasks to deliver the curriculum in a positive way is vital for success. Only when they are seen to be excited by the lesson, will the children start to learn to love Maths. Which brings me onto my next point.

3. Getting parents behind you

“Oh I used to hate Maths at school” is one comment I often hear from parents. “You poor thing, let’s get the Maths homework out the way first” is another one.

Some children grow up with the notion that Maths is hard work, boring and to be avoided at all costs! It is not difficult to see how important it is to get parents behind supporting your drive to raise standards in the subject. One school I worked with invited parents to a Maths evening; a workshop where they talked to them about the importance of evoking a positive, fun image of Maths to their children. They also asked for their support in consolidating learning at each stage and showed them how to help. They set up a communication route to each parent and often sent home fun activities that the parents could do with their children at home. One involved posting a photograph of their child on their Facebook page using an agreed hashtag. The photograph would be of their child in front of a clock somewhere with the message, “At the swimming pool at quarter past eleven on Saturday.” I’d encourage all school leaders to get the parents involved in such fun activities and appreciating the value of teaching their children to love Maths.

4. Providing the necessary training and support

The foundation of all this advice is based on teachers having a deep understanding of how to teach the new curriculum. Ensuring they are completely comfortable with this is the most important part of achieving Maths mastery. There are numerous Maths Hubs around the country designed to offer this vital support. They work on the basis that all children in any class will understand Maths - they just need different levels of support to achieve mastery. Every teacher will have a different view of what pedagogy is necessary to teach mastery effectively. Added to this, the change in curriculum for many means having to reinvent resources and lesson plans; a huge amount of work is required to do this. Once again, technology is there to help. I recommend that all schools review where each of their teachers are in teaching the new curriculum, and seek out the training necessary to ensure they are completely comfortable delivering it. The support is out there.

5. Assessment

Of course, the next consideration is how we assess understanding. The change in the philosophy underlying the curriculum has to lead to a different approach in assessment. After all, if we are teaching in a different way, then assessment has to change too. We can no longer assess on a skill by skill basis but have to integrate problems into our assessment. Schools must include a review of their assessment system in their transition to a mastery approach to Maths.

6. Finding the challenges to achieve mastery

Digital resources are the ideal way to achieving mastery, but there are plenty of resources out there that take the old fashioned, individual skill approach to Maths - counting the number of ducks in the pond, for example.

To achieve Maths mastery, we all recognise that it has to be done through repeated practice in a variety of different ways over time. If one problem is not solved, another one needs to be provided at a level just under that of the previous one. Ideally, the correct developmental level of the child will be understood and further problems can be set at the right level to build and develop their grasp of the necessary skills. The challenge is sourcing this many problem-solving activities.

To teach Maths mastery effectively, teachers need a huge range of fun but effective, curriculum-aligned Maths challenges. They need multiple tasks to practice the same skill until it is mastered, and then scale to challenge each student to a slightly higher level. There are many online sources of such problem-solving activities, so be sure to see what’s out there at a price that suits your school, and find out what your teachers like. Building up your ‘library’ of tasks is another vital part of making the mastery approach to Maths work.

Hopefully by following each of these steps, your teachers will become fully immersed in teaching for mastery. Teaching for mastery needs to be a whole-school and parent-inclusive approach, with everyone enthusiastic and excited by this new approach to Maths.

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