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Mastery in maths can work in UK classrooms

Research shows that the 'Singapore' approach to teaching maths can boost motivation and engagement in schools

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 04, 2016 | Teaching

Oxford University Press (OUP) announced today the findings of educational research into mastery – an approach to teaching maths commonly used in East Asian countries.

The independent research, conducted by the Oxford University Department of Education, is the first academic study to demonstrate that a mastery in maths textbook and professional development programme can significantly benefit children in UK schools. 

The mastery approach to learning maths involves children developing a deep understanding of a concept before moving on. It builds on a number of theories, including research conducted at Oxford University in the 1970’s by developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner around how the brain assimilates new ideas. 

It is increasingly popular in UK schools, and in July 2016, Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced £41 million over four years to support mastery in mathematics through a network of ‘mastery specialist teachers’. 

OUP has welcomed the findings, but highlighted that supporting UK teachers deliver mastery requires a change of mind-set - and has called for a debate about how to support schools in embedding it in the interests of raising children’s attainment levels. 

The UK Government believes that investing in mastery can help raise attainment in maths, which the OECD has highlighted as a key way of improving life chances.  The UK is currently ranked 26th in the  world ‘PISA’ education rankings for mathematics – far behind ‘high performing jurisdictions’ such as Singapore and Shanghai, which use mastery approaches.

Jill Cornish, Maths Editorial Director at OUP said: ‘We now have clear evidence that a mastery approach can makes a real difference to UK maths classrooms, and we support the government’s moves to support it through funding and professional development. However, it is clear that mastery cannot be a ‘Far East bolt-on’ and there is no quick fix to introducing it to UK schools. Mastery requires a whole-scale change in mind-set when teaching maths, with ongoing training for teachers, and support from school management teams.”

The Oxford University research used a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) involving OUP’s Inspire Maths – the mastery textbook and professional development programme based on My Pals are Here!, which is used in the majority of Singaporean primary schools.

It revealed that Year 1 pupils taught with the programme for two terms made significantly more progress than students using it for a shorter period. Teachers reported that the programme could boost children’s motivation and engagement, and the evaluation found that it can be used creatively and flexibly.

The research combined child assessments with classrooms observations and interviews with teachers - allowing the research team to investigate teachers’ views while also measuring pupils’ progress.  James Hall, lead-author, and now Lecturer at the University of Exeter, said; “Overall we found positive evidence that Inspire Maths benefitted children’s maths achievement and supported teachers’ professional development. This boost to progress was surprising because pupils had only been in a classroom setting for a short period and because it often takes time to embed new teaching approaches.”

More information about mastery approaches can be found on the Mastery section of the Oxford University Press website and those looking to get involved in the debate can use the #UKmastery hashtag.

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