Mastery: Firm foundations for the avoidance of misery

Vanessa Pittard shares expert advice on how to build firm foundations with mastery.

I’d like to suggest that one of the benefits of mastery is the avoidance of misery. I’ll focus on primary maths, but what I write here applies as much at KS4/GCSE as to Key Stage 2.

What’s the point of introducing mastery teaching approaches at primary? Many reasons, but among the strongest is to help ‘make the maths stick’. Sad to say that a myriad of well-meaning, highly-planned and sometimes engaging approaches to maths over recent decades have too commonly, without intent, neglected the fundamental point that teaching should focus on learning.

‘Learning’ is different from understanding, and even ‘knowing’. It’s a joy when pupils understand something new – the idiomatic lightbulb moment when they ‘get it’ – but that’s just the first step. Learning is a lasting change in knowledge and behaviour as the result of experience. In the Far East, they have a saying that there is ‘no learning without teaching and no teaching without learning.’ The business of the teacher is precisely that of achieving lasting change. Nowhere is it more important than for maths, where what’s taught is almost always a foundation for what comes later. If the foundations aren’t firm, there’s not much chance that the walls will be, and they’ll certainly not hold the roof up.

The roof in primary mathematics is the prized ability to think and reason mathematically – characteristic of working at greater depth and thus meeting the higher standards at Key Stage 2.

But what of the misery? In short, it’s the (literally) testing experience that many teachers and pupils have in the run up to Key Stage 2 and GCSE tests – practising and consolidating what’s taught of course (fine), but also often re-teaching and assessing what should be firmly learnt already. Worse still, the time’s run out and the fall-back is to slog through questions and even resort to rote learning. In the UK, we fall back on such ‘memorisation’ teaching strategies more than other countries, which is miserable[1].

How can this be avoided? The answer comes in the form of well-theorised teaching approaches which foster long-term retention and facilitate remembering. One thing is certain though: learning is complex. There’s no simple answer to the question ‘What do I need to do so that my pupils remember what I teach?’. It involves varied approaches and strategies which reflect the role and centrality of the mathematics and the prior learning of the pupils.

We can’t all be cognitive scientists, understanding the intricacies of how knowledge is stored and synaptic connections are strengthened. Nor can we all be expert mathematicians, with a forensic knowledge of the conceptual links and dependencies across this precise and elegant discipline. Fortunately, we don’t have to be. Mastery resources capture what’s understood about effective learning in maths and translate this into guidance for teaching and experiences for pupils.

I’ve argued previously that mastery isn’t mastery without a good set of well-tested and proven teaching resources. As well as guiding teaching for understanding, they guide teaching for long-term retention. I wouldn’t leave it to guesswork. Avoid the slog, up the enjoyment and banish later misery.

Discover more about Inspire Maths and Vanessa Pittard’s work on the website now!

Vanessa Pittard was Assistant Director for Curriculum and Standards at the DfE in 2011–2017, where she held responsibility for mathematics education and worked on STEM and literacy policy. Vanessa was central to the development of the Maths Hub programme and worked closely with the NCETM on the introduction of mastery teaching of mathematics in schools. Prior to that, Vanessa led the evidence and research function at Becta, the UK agency for technology in education, and was a subject leader and head of department at Sheffield Hallam University. She now works as an independent consultant.