Mastery Myths

The intention of a teaching for mastery approach is to provide all children with full access to the curriculum, enabling them to achieve confidence and competence – ‘mastery’ – in mathematics, rather than many failing to develop the maths skills they need for the future. However, with the term mastery there are several myths that have developed!

1.  Mastery in mathematics has a single clear definition – the term mastery is often used in four different ways. 

A mastery approachA mastery Curriculum.

a set of practicesAchieving mastery

2.  Mastery in Mathematics does not allow for any differentiation.

Countries at the top of the table for attainment in mathematics education employ a mastery approach to teaching mathematics. Teachers in these countries do not differentiate their maths teaching by restricting the mathematics that ‘weaker’ children experience, whilst encouraging ‘able’ children to ‘get ahead’ through extension tasks.

– Charlie Stripp 2014

With a teaching for mastery approach all children are supported to achieve. When a pupil is slow to grasp an aspect of the curriculum, he or she is supported to master rather than being left behind or being labelled as ‘low ability’. Any pupils having more difficulty in grasping any particular aspect of curriculum content are identified very rapidly and provided with extra support to help them master that content before moving on to new material.

For the children identified as ‘mathematically weak’:

  1. They are aware that they are being given less-demanding tasks, and this helps to fix them in a negative ‘I’m no good at maths’ mindset that will blight their mathematical futures.
  2. Because they are missing out on some of the curriculum, their access to the knowledge and understanding they need to make progress is restricted, so they get further and further behind, which reinforces their negative view of maths and their sense of exclusion.
  3. With low challenge, children can get used to not thinking hard about ideas and persevering to achieve success.

For the children identified as ‘mathematically able’:

  1. Extension work, unless very skilfully managed, can encourage the idea that success in maths is like a race, with a constant need to rush ahead, or it can involve unfocused investigative work that contributes little to pupils’ understanding. This means extension work can often result in superficial learning.
  2. Being identified as ‘able’ can limit pupils’ future progress by making them unwilling to tackle maths they find demanding because they don’t want to challenge their perception of themselves as being ‘clever’ and therefore finding maths easy.

In a teaching for mastery approach, all pupils should be challenged to understand more deeply. Incorporating skilful questioning within whole class teaching allows all children to be part of the learning experience and have the opportunity to make the connections and links across mathematical areas.

3.  Mastery in Mathematics involves repetitive practice

Repetition is an important part of the process of memorization and understanding can be developed through memorisation. However it needs to have a purpose, for example the use of stem sentences supports children to retain learning rather than simply trying to remember ‘what they did yesterday!’ It can also support children to:

  • Maintain focus
  • Recognise what’s important and what needs to be remembered for later learning
  • Reduce cognitive load to enable learning to happen
  • Return to and enable ideas to be connected

Useful links:

MathsHUBS Solent