Why is maths taught differently today?

If you look at your child’s maths homework or pop into their classroom, you may notice that the way maths is taught today looks nothing like it did when you were at school.

This can be unsettling for many parents because they don’t understand the new methods and don’t feel confident helping their child.  They may also question if their child is being appropriately challenged or if the new ways of doing things are any good.

Maths is taught so differently today because our knowledge and understanding of how children learn and understand maths has developed.  This is a good thing.  Just as you would want your doctor to be prescribing the most up-to-date treatments based on cutting-edge research (which might not be medication, but perhaps talking therapy or exercise), schools should be keeping up to date with the latest, cutting-edge research on how children learn and understand mathematics, and teaching in-line with this.

How is maths taught in primary schools today?

Let’s start with the word maths.  Maths is reasoning and problem-solving about problems in the world around us using logic.  What we were mostly taught at school under the name “maths” was actually closer to “arithmetic” in the form of memorising and solving number facts and calculation methods to be recalled at speed.  

Arithmetic is a branch of mathematics – it is not mathematics in and of itself.  And the speed thing is just something schools seem to have decided was important decades ago. 

Professional mathematicians are not always quick at solving arithmetic questions, and if they are, it is because they have excellent number sense – they can play around with and manipulate numbers.  They understand how numbers work.  When Rachel Riley works out the number round on Countdown in under 5 seconds, it’s because she has excellent number sense – she knows how to play around with the numbers to find the solution.  She isn’t just recalling facts, she’s applying her knowledge and understanding of number.  She is using logic to solve a problem.

What is “Mastery Maths”?

Most primary schools (and increasingly secondary schools) are now teaching a subject that fits the definition of “maths” much better – with arithmetic skills alongside –  and they are doing this using a method of teaching maths called “mastery maths”.

This teaching method originated in Singapore (one of the highest-ranking areas in the world for maths teaching) and began to be adopted in the UK about 8 years ago.  The school I was working in at the time was one of the first in Gloucestershire to implement this method of teaching.

The principles of mastery teaching are very different to how you would have been taught maths (and how I was taught to teach maths), and align with what maths actually is, and how children learn and develop an understanding of maths concepts. 

When my school introduced Mastery Maths, it really blew my mind and I didn’t think it would work after over ten years of teaching in ways that are perhaps more recognisable to parents. 

After just a few months teaching this way, I was totally converted and wished I’d been taught maths this way at school.  It is a much better way of developing maths skills that align with child development and ensures children understand what they are doing.  It teaches skills that are relatable to everyday life, and also the reasoning and problem-solving skills employers are, and most probably will be, looking for in the future.

Principles of Mastery Maths

Mastery Maths teaching is based on the principles that everyone can learn and enjoy maths.  It is about reasoning and making connections between concepts.  It is about developing a deep and secure understanding of key ideas that are needed to understand future learning.

It is about understanding how and why numbers work and connect, having mathematical dexterity, and being able to link concepts together.  For example understanding that multiplication and division are linked, and in turn, understanding that division is linked to fractions, and in turn, understanding that fractions, decimals and percentages are different ways of representing numbers less than 1. 

These skills set children up for success in any future mathematical study, and the use of maths in everyday life, far better than how maths used to be taught.  Most people disliked maths and find it hard to engage with because we were taught how to do something with no understanding of why it worked or why it was necessary or how it relates to other things, or that speed was a really important aspect (pressure of having to give an answer in a set time triggers our stress response and shuts the brain down into survival mode – not helpful!)

Mastery Maths teaching methods

In Mastery Maths – children are taught the same concept all together, broken down into small steps so that children build on previous learning and make connections.

Bar model, whole part model, concrete using apparatus

This whole class approach makes people think that brighter children are not being challenged and children who are struggling are not supported.  This is not the case. Differentiation is still happening, but in much more subtle and effective ways.  Children who grasp the concept quickly are challenged by solving problems and reasoning about the concept, in more and more depth – they keep digging deeper and deeper into it so they have a solid understanding. Children requiring more help are supported with apparatus, different ways of presenting the concept to find a way that clicks for them, and repetition to practise and consolidate learning, alongside immediate, targeted teaching in small groups.

Research is very clear that putting children into ability groups and giving them tasks that create a ceiling on their ability holds children back and sends the message “this is all I think you will be capable of doing – don’t even try what that other table are doing”.  It impedes their learning, not develops it.  Expecting all children to be able to learn something (some will get there quicker than others) shows children they are capable and able to achieve.  And they do! You can read more about this research on my blog here.

The way concepts are presented is where most parents will come into contact with mastery maths.  You may see bar models, whole-part models, images of apparatus such as Numicon, place value counters or dienes apparatus.  These are all ways of representing a problem.  They are not methods like column addition or long division.  They help children visualise number problems and see them in different ways and how different connections can be made.  This helps learning not hinders it.  They will be taught the “traditional” methods, but, taking division as great example, diving straight into short or long division when children don’t understand that division is “sharing equally”, and firstly building a deep understanding of what this means through various representations, and then understanding we can divide through “repeated subtraction”, before moving onto the “traditional” methods– means that most children will struggle to understand what they are doing and therefore won’t remember the method.

concrete, pictorial and abstract ways of representing 1/4 of 12.

By deeply understanding what dividing is and having done it in different (often less efficient, but more conceptually obvious ways) helps children take the step up to formal (“traditional”) methods because they understand why that method works.  The “ah ha” moments happen and they remember the formal method better, and if not, they have other methods to fall back on instead. They are able to access maths because they have a number toolkit.

Why not just teach them one method?

My Year 6 teacher always said “there is no right or wrong way to do maths” and she was spot on.  It doesn’t matter how a child gets to an answer if they have a method that works for them and they understand it.  There are a multitude of ways of reaching a solution – none is “better” than the other, although some are more efficient. It is important to develop an understanding of “efficient methods” but that is all part of the mastery process.

Why not keep things as they have always been? I’m OK at maths.

To return to my doctor’s analogy.  A few decades ago, if you had a bad back, doctors would have told you to lie down still.  Now, due to research and professional development of doctors, they will now tell you to move around as much as possible.  When this was a new idea it would have felt counter-intuitive and weird and “that can’t possibly work?!”

The way maths is taught is just the same.  The old ways are not necessarily the most helpful ways.  Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s the right way going forward, in light of new research. 

Teaching methods are constantly being refined due to new research about how children learn. Teaching things the way they always have been is as unhelpful, and even as damaging as, prescribing treatments for medical issues which the research now shows impedes rather than helps.

How to help your child with maths:

If you feel unsure about helping your child using these methods you can:

  • Ask your school for help in understanding the methods – many schools run parent information sessions to explain them.
  • Ask your child to explain it to you.  If they can, it shows they have a really good understanding of the concept.
  • Don’t beat yourself up.  You are not a qualified teacher and aren’t expected to understand these methods inside out.  Encourage your child to think back to their lessons and have a go.  Developing independence in learning this way actually helps learning, not hinders it, especially if they make mistakes (remember, mistakes are wonderful things and are needed for connections in the brain to be made).
  • Read my other blog about how to help children with their learning here.
Tutor working online with a child

I use mastery maths methods in my tuition to develop a deep and secure understanding of maths concepts and to tie in with methods being used in schools so that children make links instead of being confused.

Contact me if I can help your child develop a love of maths.

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