An East Asian approach to maths can work in British schools

By November 11, 2016 No Comments
Mastering maths the Asian way. Pexels

The recent push for teachers to use East Asian styles of maths teaching in British schools – including a £41m investment by the UK government – has sparked controversy. This is partly because critics suggest there is not enough evidence that these styles of learning actually work in the UK.

The East Asian “mastery” approach to maths works on the expectation that all pupils can achieve – along with an emphasis on depth over breadth. This means that teachers take more time to help pupils build a secure understanding of concepts and skills. A mastery approach also sees the whole class taught at essentially the same pace, topic by topic.

While critics of the approach have suggested that it might not meet some individual pupils’ needs, our recent research actually found that a mastery based approach can raise children’s achievement – while being flexible enough for teachers to adapt to the needs of their pupils and schools.

Mastering maths

Our research evaluated the use of a mastery based textbook and teaching approach – known as “Inspire Maths” – similar to those used in Singapore. We looked at two English primary school groups – one started using the Inspire Maths textbook in September 2015, while the other continued with the usual approach to maths teaching for the first term, and then began using Inspire Maths in January 2016.

We visited the schools that took part three times during 2015-16 – near the beginning of each school term. During each visit, we interviewed teachers, observed maths lessons and assessed children’s understanding of maths and attitudes towards the subject. We also observed the professional development teachers participated in to support their use of Inspire Maths.

The results showed that pupils in the September start group had significantly higher achievement after two terms’ use of Inspire Maths, compared to the January start group. From our lesson observations, we also found evidence of more effective classroom practice.

Mastery method gives youngsters a mathematical boost.

We also didn’t find a difference between the two groups in terms of pupils’ attitudes towards maths – they remained positive overall – which might go some way to allay concerns about the negative impact a mastery approach could have on children’s motivation and enjoyment of school.

Inspiring change

Although some teachers were initially sceptical about the use of textbooks, and worried that the teaching approach would be overly prescriptive, the majority (85%) hoped to continue using Inspire Maths at the end of the research period.

The rest, planned to fit Inspire Maths in with other topics that are required by their schools, or with other teaching approaches that were whole-school policy. This suggested that for a new mastery approach and textbook to work, support from school leadership is important to avoid putting competing pressures on teachers.

By the third term, almost all of the teachers said that the professional development they engaged in made them feel empowered to adapt the ways they were using the textbooks to fit the needs of their pupils and schools.

Some teachers also said using the textbook allowed them to focus more on developing and reflecting on their classroom practice – which made them question techniques and the use of mathematical language.

Challenging expectations

Many teachers also found that their views about children’s abilities were challenged once they started using a mastery approach. Teachers had children working in mixed ability groups rather than more traditional groups of “high”, “low”, or “middle” ability. Additionally, children worked on the same topic and tasks during a lesson, rather than being given different tasks or topics based on their individual abilities.

While some of the teachers worried at first that this would make it difficult to meet individual needs, many of these same teachers remarked by the third term that pupils they had considered “high” ability struggled to explain their reasoning even when they could quickly give a correct answer. At the same time, pupils they had considered “low” ability were often able to show understanding using concrete objects even when they struggled to give answers in writing.

Once they were using Inspire Maths, many teachers were deciding which children needed extra support topic by topic rather than targeting a consistent “low” ability group. And some teachers stopped using the words “high” and “low” altogether by the third round of interviews – instead referring to pupils grasping specific concepts “quickly” or “slowly”.

And it is this shift in thinking – from overall ability to “mastery” of a certain skill or concept – that goes to the heart of what East Asian approaches are about.

The Conversation

The research discussed in this article was commissioned and funded (as an external, independent evaluation) by the Oxford University Press.

An East Asian approach to maths can work in British schools
An East Asian approach to maths can work in British schools
The Conversation