Mastery Myth-busting

We dispel some of the common myths about teaching for mastery


Mastery Myth-busting

When you hear ‘teaching for mastery’, what questions, thoughts and beliefs spring to mind? Whether you are a mastery maestro or just starting on your journey, this feature will clarify some of the common misconceptions, and give you a clearer understanding of how the mastery approach can benefit all schools and pupils.

'The NCETM/Maths Hubs isn't for me - my school uses a different scheme to teach maths'

Funded by the DfE and delivered by the NCETM, Maths Hubs were set up to provide research-informed, evidence-based professional development designed to support teachers and schools to get the best out of whichever teaching for mastery scheme they use, whether that scheme is an ‘off-the-shelf’ commercial mastery scheme or one that the school has developed itself.

Maths Hubs CPD enhances teacher subject knowledge and pedagogy, and hubs support teachers, from Reception to post-16, whatever scheme they use. All of the CPD delivered by Maths Hubs, and the materials produced by the NCETM to support their work, are underpinned by teaching for mastery approaches.

In a nutshell, whatever scheme or curriculum your school follows, your local Maths Hub can help you get the most out of it. And it’s free!

'It involves lots of resources and materials'

Take a look at The Essence of Mathematics Teaching for Mastery and you’ll see that it is primarily an approach to curriculum design, pedagogy and subject knowledge. The greatest investment is time, to engage with the professional development needed to become really proficient at using teaching for mastery approaches. Because Maths Hubs are funded by the DfE, they are able to offer that CPD at no cost to schools.

As we explain in The Five Big Ideas in Teaching for Mastery, a key element of the approach is the use of representation and structure, to aid a deep, secure understanding of concepts. However, these structures are often visual rather than physical; for example, a number line, hundred square, part-part-whole model or bar model. The use of manipulatives can be very effective in the classroom, but not having them is absolutely no barrier to adopting a teaching for mastery approach. 

If you have any questions about what is involved, contact your local hub for a chat.

'It doesn't work in secondary'

Sure, teaching for mastery is currently more widespread in primary schools across England, but more and more secondary schools are now realising the benefits mastery can have for them too. With the majority of primary schools now taking a teaching for mastery approach to maths, many secondary schools understand the benefits of keeping maths learning consistent to ensure a smooth transition to KS3. In 2022/23, 1,959 secondary schools actively engaged in mastery-related Work Groups and programmes with their local Maths Hub, and more will join this year and beyond.

The essential features of teaching for mastery in maths – to develop understanding, keeping the class together working on the same content, and believing that every child can succeed – can be applied in either mixed prior attainment or streamed classes. We have materials and guidance on our website for secondary teachers looking to embed teaching for mastery. All our resources are created by secondary specialists and always backed by research. Our most popular materials are the KS3 Checkpoints – why not download them to try with your Year 7 and 8 classes?

Listen to two London-based secondary headteachers explain why they believe in teaching for mastery, and read how mastery can bring ‘priceless’ benefits to secondary schools.

‘The pace of a mastery lesson is too slow’

Exploring concepts in depth and with rigour can take time, especially when you may be worrying about covering the curriculum by specific dates, or that your rapid graspers are complaining that the maths is ‘easy’. But as NCETM Director for Primary, Debbie Morgan, explains in her Q&A on Variation, taking time to go really deeply into concepts benefits all pupils and ensures no gaps appear later. It’s all too easy for those rapid graspers to scrape a surface-level understanding of a concept which is quickly forgotten. Mastery lessons ensure all children develop a deep, lasting understanding that enables them to make connections and see patterns later down the line. 

Read A Tale of Two Schools to find out how two schools, with very different cohorts of children, have benefitted from a teaching for mastery approach to maths.

'You still need to differentiate'

Debbie Morgan is clear about there being no need to differentiate in primary school maths lessons, in terms of planning different activities for groups of pupils. Using the mastery approach means providing the same diet of maths education for all children; teaching the whole class together and having the Five Big Ideas in place to ensure learning is accessible to everyone. Yes, a more subtle form of differentiation is happening – planning for different levels of questioning and follow-up tasks – but the key to mastery is ensuring that all children understand the concept being taught. Listen to the podcast episode to find out more.

'My school has already 'done' mastery'

The term ‘mastery’ describes the elements of classroom practice and school organisation that combine to give pupils the best chances of succeeding in maths. Achieving mastery is not a destination – mastery is a journey which schools embark on, often with support from their local Maths Hub, to continually develop maths teaching and learning across all year groups.

Maths Hubs support all state-funded schools in England, so whether your school hasn’t yet begun their mastery journey, or if it’s something that has fallen by the wayside, there are options available to you. Read more about the Developing, Embedding and Sustaining Programmes for primary and secondary, and contact your local hub today.