Mastery maths: How does it differ from other approaches?

The way maths is taught in schools is always a hot topic; most recently it returned to the fore following the government’s announcement to invest £41m in training primary school teachers in the South Asian ways of maths teaching, colloquially known as “mastery maths”.

What is a mastery approach to teaching maths? How does it differ from other approaches?

Mastery maths is part mindset, part teaching methodology and part curriculum design and the unifying principle is that as well as being able to do the maths, students will understand it.

Mindset – gone is the notion that maths is for some people and not for others, and in its place is the belief that, with the right teaching, pupil effort and curriculum, maths success is for all.

In China, the commonly held assumption is hard work brings success. That’s the direction UK maths classrooms are heading too.


Teaching methodology

From the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM)

“Pupils are taught through whole-class interactive teaching, where the focus is on all pupils working together on the same lesson content at the same time, as happens in Shanghai and several other regions that teach maths successfully. This ensures that all can master concepts before moving to the next part of the curriculum sequence, allowing no pupil to be left behind.

“Lesson design identifies the new mathematics that is to be taught, the key points, the difficult points and a carefully sequenced journey through the learning. In a typical lesson pupils sit facing the teacher and the teacher leads back and forth interaction, including questioning, short tasks, explanation, demonstration, and discussion.”


Part of the government investment will be to improve the resources at teachers’ fingertips, particularly the textbooks. During the Shanghai-England exchange over the last 2 years, English teachers have realised the importance of good question design and ‘intelligent practice’, something that English textbook publishers haven’t focused on so closely. Major re-writes of the English textbooks are on the way and teachers will be guided in how to use them to support their teaching.

In a typical Shanghai maths lesson pupils are often called on to explain how they’re doing the calculations – there is an expression over there that “the answer is only just the beginning” – so we are likely to see more of our children being asked to share their strategies with their partner and then come together to discuss all strategies as a class.

Curriculum design – in Shanghai the maths syllabus would be described as “slower” and “deeper”. That is to say, fewer topics are covered each year but they are studied in more detail. More of the nuances, representations and applications of each concept – as well as the connections between them – are explored in Shanghai so that their pupils come away with a firm mathematical understanding. In comparison, their English counterparts tend to be rushed on to the next topic before they’re confident with the current one.

It’s been a few years since it was deemed fundamental to know the basic number facts off by heart. Learning from South Asian countries (Singapore included), rapid recall of number bonds to 10 and the times tables facts is now expected by the National Curriculum.


The government’s £41m for the mastery approach to maths teaching in our primary schools is to be welcomed.