Developing Mastery in Mathematics (2)

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An Action Research project by Jodie Johnson

The aim of this project was to explore different ways in which we could embed the new ‘mastery in maths’ curriculum into our day to day teaching. The curriculum has changed dramatically for Key Stage 3 and 4 in terms of the way students will be assessed; while the content is largely the same the way in which we teach the new curriculum has to be adapted to this new style if our students are to be successful .

Our aims were:

  • To clarify exactly what ‘mastery’ means for our subject
  • What this means for us as a faculty as a whole and our teaching styles; we then wanted to work on how this should directly impact on our individual lessons and assessments
  • To begin to think about how we could allow our students the opportunity to be more resilient in our subject and therefore more ready to face the new style of questioning that they will be challenged with
  • Finally, we worked on how the mastery curriculum could be embedded more formally into our schemes of work.

Background

Looking formally at ‘Mastery in Mathematics’ is vital for our department at this time as our current year 10 are the first to face the new mastery curriculum at GCSE level. It was essential that we took the time as a department to focus on the shifting focuses of the new curriculum; it was important that we did this together and that we did it now. In our initial meeting we wanted to address the differing opinions we had in terms of what we thought mastery was and then whether this mirrored what the new curriculum required. Once we had clarified this for ourselves it was important to us that the students could articulate what we meant by mastery.  Finally and most importantly we needed to work on how this would impact on our day to day teaching methods so that our teaching style was adapted and in turn we were preparing our students as best we possibly could for the challenges they would be facing.

Context

We began our discussions at the beginning of the year by each focusing on a couple of specific classes that we would ensure had a ‘mastery plenary’ as often as possible and that we would use as a group to compare to the rest of our students. However we quickly realised that this would leave those that were not picked at a huge disadvantage in terms of preparing them for their assessments so we decided it was important that all of our students (in years 7-10) were experiencing ‘mastery’ style lessons.

While we felt as a department it was vital that we started to look at Mastery this year for our students, I have also been interested in this style of teaching for a while. I have become more and more conscious since I began teaching that the mathematics we were delivering to our students wasn’t necessarily preparing them for the real world but for an exam that we could pretty much second guess in terms of what it would look like. Like most other mathematics teachers I have worked with, I felt the problem solving skills and fluency that we should be teaching our students was being lost and replaced with teaching students how to answer a seemingly random set of questions in order to pass exams and this meant that they did not have a deep understanding of the concepts they were being taught. In my opinion, Mathematics should be an exercise in problem solving, it should stretch a person’s mind to work in a way that no other subject does and this was being lost as result of the pressure which falls heavily upon teachers shoulders to hit target grades. The new mastery curriculum while daunting for maths teachers in the short term, I saw and still see, as an exciting and hugely beneficial thing in the long term for our future generation of Mathematicians. How exactly this would look in my classroom, how I could ensure I was preparing them to problem solve and enjoy mathematics, while at the same time preparing them to pass their exams in maths is something I was grateful to have the time to do while preparing this Action Research Project.

Actions

As a department there are several ways in which we have modified our teaching since working together as a learning focus group1.

Research into Mastery and how this affected our work

All member of the department undertook their own individual research into what mastery was and we the brought it together in our learning focus meetings. We found that the most important factor when teaching the mastery curriculum was that of fluency between topics. We decided after our reading that for our students, especially those that would be facing the foundation curriculum this was something that we were not currently doing successfully, building their resilience in mathematics was paramount.   If they were to be successful mathematicians we needed to instil some confidence in them that it is completely fine to get things wrong in mathematics.

We also discovered various ways in which other countries have approached the teaching of Mathematics. We looked at the potential impact adopting Eastern Asian styles of teaching would have on our students and decided that some time would need to be dedicated to our students ‘learning’ facts and methods in maths so they had access to them at all times when completing more open ended tasks. Things like learning times tables for our younger students is something we often presume the students know from primary school but this is often not the case and we spent some time with our weaker students actually learning things like this as home works or in class.

We discovered after conversations between the team that articulating mathematics is something that is important for our students in order to ‘master’ a topic and that again our current methods weren’t necessarily allowing enough opportunity for this skill to be developed. We have therefore spent much more time on questions where students have to prove answers and in my lessons I questions students in a slightly different way, emphasising the importance of clarity in their working, asking questions like “Are you sure about that? Prove it to me as your current working doesn’t convince me”. This form of questioning also forces my students to think more precisely about what they are writing and the way in which they are presenting their work.

We researched different methods that we could use every lesson that wouldn’t necessarily link directly to individual topics. For example, asking questions like:

“Where does this fit into what we did last week?”

“Can you show me another way to do that?”

“Is that the only way to do that question?”

Adapting Assessments

At the beginning of the year we were working from a scheme of work called ‘Kangaroo’. We have worked on this for the least 4 years as a faculty but with the new curriculum changes Kangaroo have also updated their aims and lesson objectives. We continued to follow this scheme of work but adapted our assessments to include mastery style questions that we found on the Kangaroo website as well as the AQA website (which is the GCSE board we will be following) at the end of each unit of work. This meant that our students now needed much more fluency between subject areas and we were working at dispelling the myth that ‘a Pythagoras question looks like this’, ‘an expanding brackets question looks like this’ etc. We were starting to force our students to think of Mathematics as a puzzle and that each individual topic was just one piece and that they would need all the pieces to answer these new style questions.

Over the last 3 years we have been developing our schemes of work to incorporate more and more ‘Nrich’ challenges (Nrich is a website created by Cambridge University which has open ended questions and what we now recognise as ‘Mastery challenges’). While we have informally taught Nrich lessons once a fortnight for the last few years, one member of the department has now formally added appropriate Nrich lessons to our schemes of work where they naturally fit into the subject areas we are teaching. The rationale behind this is that the students will get used to being ‘stuck’ (no Nrich challenge is a 5 minute problem with a yes or no answer – each one takes at least an hour and the students will become more and more familiar with getting themselves unstuck as part of the experience). One adaptation I made during these lessons during the year was to only allow students to ask 3 questions of me the teacher per Nrich lesson. This forced them to have to really think about whether they needed to ask the questions or whether they were actually being too teacher reliant.

While this year was very much an experimental year in terms of the best way to adopt ‘mastery’ in the classroom, one thing that we were keen to get right was our assessments. We felt it was essential that the assessments the students were doing to inform our data on their learning resembled closely what their final assessments would look like in order to make our data as accurate as possible. In some cases (especially in year 10) this has meant students’ progress data has taken a hit, however we felt preparation for the new mastery curriculum was paramount. This also meant that we could build resilience, not just in the classroom when we are teaching and when they have the luxury of checking their answers and ideas with their peers and teacher but when the students needed to transfer this to the exam hall and feel as though they needed to at least attempt questions (especially the larger 6-8 mark questions which we have not seen before) without fear of getting them wrong.

Changing plenaries

In order to prepare our students for the new style curriculum we started to use plenary questions that paired more than one topic with that which was taught during the lesson. In the Appendix you will find two plenaries which show how mastery could be demonstrated once a topic has been covered.  There is also a full lesson which shows Levelled learning objectives and how we now must link subject content to other areas to secure ‘mastery’. Hopefully these will show how fluency between topics is now essential to completing most of my planned plenaries this year. While there was some resistance from students initially, the students do recognise the importance of doing this and have adapted accordingly.

Peer Observations

In order to help each other and compare our work, myself and another member of the faculty paired up to complete some peer observations. We used the time to discuss ideas and how the topics taught could be connected to other areas of maths.  This helped both of us to plan appropriate mastery style questions for the main bulk of the lessons and the plenaries. The joint planning that went into these lessons allowed us to think about the fluency between other areas and topics, as well as standardising the way we delivered our plenaries and most importantly, the different ways in which we were trying to build resilience in the subject.  As a faculty we plan to complete at least one peer observation per term to see how mastery is developing.

Impact and Conclusion

The impact our actions have had on the faculty will be felt in time. While there is no concrete evidence that can be shared in this document, I think that from my perspective, it has forced me to think about my practice and the fluency and links I make when teaching. My mathematics has certainly improved as a result of teaching the new curriculum, especially since I have a very able top set in year 10, who need to be challenged to reach their potential – the new assessments that we have even challenged me, which has been great!

While many students are still not comfortable with the new curriculum and style in which we now have to teach mathematics it is definitely improving, my students, especially the most able, are always very excited when they realise we are having an ‘Nrich lesson’ and now ask me at the start of lessons whether that is what we are doing today. This is an improvement on where we were at the start of the year since they didn’t tend to enjoy and therefore excel in these lessons because they were being pushed out of their comfort zone.

My key stage three classes have improved greatly in terms of their resilience and are now much more able to access mastery plenary questions that I give them to practice. At the beginning of the year many, especially my least able in year 7 and 8 would simply freeze when they were confronted with a questions that didn’t directly relate to the subject we had been focused on during the lesson. It is a gradual process but it is certainly a picture that is improving.

As I have mentioned above, the first mock our year 10 students took in June did not necessarily show strong progress, however in terms of my class, their reaction certainly showed maturity and resilience which is what this new curriculum requires our students to show. They worked solidly on their mock papers once they had been marked to understand as many questions as possible. Since they now understand the importance of keeping going – they are keen to do so.

Next Steps

Continuing our work on mastery is essential if we are to mould students to being successful not just in maths but in terms of their resilience to tackle problems and overcome their fear of getting things wrong. It is important that our work continues over the next few years and that any new team member understands why this is so important. Next year we will continue developing our lesson plans and assessments.  We will continue to work on Nrich challenges with our students and the peer observations that myself and another colleague completed will be rolled out to all members of the faculty. The standardisation of our lessons is important so that our students recognise that when they come to the maths corridor they will be challenged and need to have access to all areas of maths, not just those that they have been taught in the last 45 minutes.

This project is certainly an ongoing piece of work that we need to build on over the next few years. Our students will certainly become more comfortable with the mastery curriculum as we move forward, especially as this year Key Stage 1 & 2 have also been introduced to the new ‘mastery curriculum’ at their level, which should mean students are being moulded to move more freely between topics and solve problems independently. I look forward to seeing how our students develop as our teaching styles become more accustomed to the new curriculum.

Footnotes

  1. Learning Focus Groups – For professional development purposes staff work in small groups who share a common interest in developing an aspect of their teaching practice. These groups provide a forum for discussion, support, sharing and joint activities to help each teacher develop their own individual Action Research project.

Appendix

Plenary 1

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Plenary 2

 

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Full lesson

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Plenary

 

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References

Department for Education (DfE). (2013a). National Curriculum in England: Framework Document. London: Department for Education.

Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, J. & Findell, B.(eds.)(2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. Mathematics Learning Study Committee: National Research Council.

NCETM (2014a). Developing Mastery in Mathematics. [Online] Available from: https://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/45776 [Accessed: 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2014b). Video material to support the implementation of the National Curriculum. Available from: https://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/40529 [Accessed 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2015). National Curriculum Assessment Materials. [Online] Available from: https://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/46689 [Accessed 28th September 2015]

Ofsted  (2015) Better Mathematics Conference Keynote Spring 2015. Paper presented at the Better Mathematics Conference, Norwich, Norfolk.

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