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The Journey towards a Mastery Curriculum – One Year In

Teaching something new to pupils is one thing but also changing the school’s teaching approach is another. Paul Johnson shows that with the support of his head, he was able to change his school to a mastery curriculum.

Diagram reproduced courtesy of NCETM

Over two years ago, I learnt about the NCETM Primary Mastery Specialist Training Programme and decided that this was the route I wanted my school to follow.  We are a one form entry school that has always had good results as well as having a high percentage of children that have achieved greater depth or level 6. For a number of years, we have been using a concrete, pictorial, abstract (CPA) approach, and I saw developing a mastery approach as the next logical step.  I am a strong believer that children should be taught conceptual understanding instead of strictly being taught rules.

Having looked into the mastery approach, I felt that this was a perfect fit for our school as well as underpinning my ethos.  My Headteacher was very supportive, and she fully backed this approach. Fundamentally, she understood that it was a journey that could take time and that results wouldn’t increase instantly.  I gained a place on the training and immediately following the opening conference I considered there to be a number of key questions:

Do we phase the approach in class by class or introduce whole school?

How do I ensure that all staff are on-board with this process?

Which area of mastery are we going to focus on first?

How will a slower approach affect our higher ability children?

Our staff are very open to new ways of thinking; however, for a number of teachers there was some apprehension. When you get good results in your class, you begin to question the need for change.  My first staff meeting focused on what a mastery curriculum entailed, and how it would benefit all children. I focused on how each year group’s learning was to prepare them for the following year and that fundamental concepts taught each year had to be embedded rather than children rushing through the curriculum.  A key focus for this meeting was to ensure that we were consistent across school having decided on this whole school approach.

Throughout the first few months of starting our journey, I planned with teachers and ensured support for them by carrying out team teaching.  Opportunities for discussion concerning the new approaches often followed these joint lessons. T here was one particular lesson in Year One that did not quite go according to plan as I had pitched it wrong.  Not only was it important for the teacher to see that we won’t always get it right, it led to an open dialogue about what needed to change. The following day, after altering my lesson, I tried again and the children amazed me and the teacher at what they could do.

At this point, I think it is important to remember that when introducing something new, we don’t rush and overload staff with too many new ideas.  My personal focus has been on maths this last year, whereas all of the other teachers had to teach all of the other subjects as well plus other leads in school were busy developing their own subject areas.  The whole process has to be manageable, and all staff had to have appropriate CPD to develop their own knowledge and have the opportunity to try out new approaches.

Our first focus as a school was on representations.  This seemed a logical starting point as we were already using bar modelling throughout school.  Our children very quickly adapted to seeing a range of representations, and the children have become confident using a range of models.  Teachers have become adept at using a range of representations throughout all areas of maths and create many resources themselves. The part-part whole model is one such representation that and has become one of the most valuable tools that the children have at their disposal.  

Throughout the year, I have run regular staff meetings (8 in total this year) focusing on a range of different areas.   Following our work on representations, we focused on fluency and small steps. We also developed our approaches to calculation and how the use of language and sentence stems can deepen understanding. Having a consistent, coherent approach is essential for the children to build on previous learning otherwise we tend to start at the beginning again.
We have had many successes this year.  Our children have a greater knowledge of number, and in many year groups this has transferred into a greater use of mental strategies when completing calculations.  The children in Key Stage 1 and lower key stage 2 have fully embraced the approach and are competent in using models to decode problems; consequently, they have developed their mathematical thinking.  I was beaming with pride as I marked the Key Stage 1 maths papers as the children applied all of the skills they had been taught. Our higher ability children excelled and demonstrated a deep understanding, whilst a small group of children, that in the past would have scraped ARE, proved they had become confident mathematicians and applied themselves in the test.  However, our Year Six children’s previous habits were hard to break. In hindsight, would I have rolled out the approach differently and only focused on Key Stage 1? I think I still would have done the same as I strongly feel that the children have left our school understanding mathematical concepts better than they did previously.

We plan to continue our journey following a mastery approach, and a key focus will be developing our staff’s knowledge and learning to dissect mathematical approaches.  We aim to introduce teachers to working in triads to observe lessons and discuss the approaches afterwards. This will follow a similar approach to the Teacher Research Groups (TRG) that I will be continuing to run next year.  Also, we have further developed our plans based on our learning from this year. As the year progressed, many teachers were discussing how they would link more topics to number and calculation rather than teach these as stand-alone topics.  Conversion between metric measures is a prime example of this. Plans have also been put in place for the number strand of the curriculum ready for September based on these reflections. Lesson design is vital, and this will be our primary focus in the next academic year.  Crafting lessons by using a range of representations and controlling variation is the key to delivering a highly effective mastery curriculum.

I would strongly recommend that primary schools adopt this approach to maths; however, I strongly believe that Mastery in Maths is not just a scheme to follow. It is about having highly skilled teachers that can teach tricky concepts in a controlled way.  The 5 ‘big ideas’ as set out by the NCETM is a guide to some of the elements of mastery, and should not be seen as a tick list. I look forward to seeing our children develop as mathematicians next year. I hope that they come back in September showing a good understanding in this subject and that the time spent this year deepening their understanding begins to pay its rewards.

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The author

Paul has been teaching for over 15 years in a number of Primary Schools, and has led Maths for the past 11 years. Throughout this time, he has always been passionate about children developing a deep understanding of concepts rather than being taught mathematical rules. He is a PD Lead and Maths SLE, and has delivered training to a number of schools on the use of models and representations. He continues to develop his own practice and is now a NCETM Primary Mastery Specialist.

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