How Chiswick House in Malta made the switch to a maths mastery approach to learning

|7 min read

Three years ago, our school had a problem: our pupils lacked confidence in mathematics. They didn’t have number sense and they struggled with fundamental skills like problem solving.

It was clear something had to give. We started looking into maths programmes that promised to help us improve our pupils learning. Unfortunately, we found that too many of them were inadequate or simply not professional. Finally, we discovered the mastery approach to maths and with it, the cornerstone of good teaching — textbooks and training.

We booked a three day mastery training course with MNP and discovered that the key concepts complimented our own PhD learning, providing sound theories that made perfect sense. It was clear that this approach was making children more confident and that the fundamentals were based in good teaching — it wasn’t rocket science!

Having implemented the programme in our school, we thought you might like to know about how we did it, the challenges we faced and the impact it’s had on our school.

Prepare for a struggle

We teach our children that productive struggle is an effective way to learn and as school leaders and teachers we had to follow suit as we made the shift to a new way of teaching.

In Malta, we have a very traditional style of teaching based on rote learning. Over the years there has been an overload in content to teach so classrooms had become very routine and it was important that we convinced our senior management of the need for change. This was going to be a huge culture shock for all involved and there needed to be a whole shift in mentality across all teaching.

We visited Three Bridges school in Southall who already had MNP embedded in their teaching and we were reassured that the challenge was worthwhile. Once we were convinced that this was the right approach it was easy to persuade others in our school through our enthusiasm and determination.

Once we’d convinced senior management of the value of a change in approach and the investment in a solid programme, the real challenge of implementation began.

At first, the switch to the maths mastery method was overwhelming but if we have one message for you it that “in time it will be fine”. These strategies don’t develop overnight, it takes time and patience.

Get your parents on board

Parents in Malta have very high expectations of learning so to implement the MNP programme in our school would require a complete cultural shift. We all too often considered “what will the parents say” as the benchmark for our decisions. Some parents looked at the textbooks and questioned why there were only 2 questions on a page when they themselves had been taught using a much more repetitive, rote form of learning.

To persuade parents, we organised 3 workshops a year to prove that the maths mastery approach was right for their children. We built trust with our parents by using examples of games that we play with the children to explain mathematical concepts that are being taught. Parents soon realised that giving children problem solving and critical thinking skills at an early age was in line with the best education practices for their children.

Essentially, we had to convince parents that the most effective way to embed the knowledge in their children is to make learning fun!

Plan for implementation

We found that older children who hadn’t been exposed to the mastery approach had gaps in their learning. We agonised about how we would get these children up to speed. It is very difficult to implement a maths mastery in Years 5 and 6 without previous exposure as success is determined by the scaffolding approach but, it can be done if all teachers are trained at once to a high level of proficiency. It will still be a painful couple of years but the success at the end will more than make up for it.

Initially, we had a two hour session with our teachers where we laid out what we knew about maths mastery and the plan we would be working towards. Then we had planning meetings every week to get teachers ready for the change. Once we were using the programme we used every weekly planning meeting to ask questions like: “what happened last week?”, “what were the challenges?”, “how did we overcome them?” We then looked at the week ahead to see how what we had learned could apply to potential problems going forward. This created a positive feeling throughout the teaching staff who began to work as a team, supporting each other to ensure success in the classroom. This atmosphere of positivity amongst teachers: “let’s look at the problem together and solve it”, really filters down into the classroom. If you have a philosophy of “every problem has a solution” then the change is easy.

The mastery approach is all about empowerment, the teachers feel empowered and they impart that feeling on students so that when they learn something on their own they feel good about themselves. This is not about just standing in front of a class and dictating learning to students. The teacher is a facilitator to the children’s learning enabling them to construct their own knowledge.

A new approach to teaching

Due to the climate, Malta has a lot of holidays so we were faced with a challenge if we were to follow the entire MNP Scheme of Work which is based on the UK curriculum. The challenge was that the scaffolding was so well thought out that to remove one brick could see the whole wall collapse.

To work around this, we found areas of the programme that might be removed or replaced elsewhere without detriment to the scaffolding. For instance, the lessons on “word problems” could be removed and the questions could be placed into relevant lessons elsewhere in the books. In Malta the syllabus does not cover volume so in those lessons we taught anything that was essential to scaffold learning elsewhere and removed anything that wasn’t. We also looked at ways that we could move topics to cross curricular teaching so for instance we now teach ‘positions’ in P.E. and ‘area’ in I.T. ensuring subject knowledge is still covered thoroughly.

Children will adapt but they need support too

In Singapore, English is not usually spoken at home and yet lessons are taught in English and the students have no issues. In Malta the first excuse for learning not working is that it is in English, this mentality has to be broken down. The reason children struggle is they have not been given the tools for problem solving and critical thinking – language has nothing to do with it.

Some children who had previously been doing well struggled early on. They had good memory and were able to repeat like parrots but they faced difficulties when confronted with problem solving. The whole class approach to teaching really helped with this. Some previously struggling learners were able to problem solve and share that knowledge with these new strugglers. Knowledge and critical thinking are now shared throughout the class bringing all students attainment levels up.

We have found, however, that it is preferential to start the learning as early as possible (preferably in kindergarten) so that a growth mindset and a thirst for discovery can be instilled from a young age.

The results

The shift to a maths mastery approach has been a positive, enriching experience. The way we used to teach was not giving pupils the confidence they needed to become mathematicians, and the implementation of a mastery approach changed all that. The culture of spoon-feeding and sheltering pupils has been abolished as we give every child a chance to discover the joys of mathematics for themselves.

Children are using challenging questions and solving them as a group without relying on the teacher’s input. They’re now better prepared to move on to the next stages of the education having improved their collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative problem solving and creativity.

And for teachers the effort now goes into delivering lessons not planning them and teachers’ attitudes have begun to change not just in maths lessons but across all subjects.

Chiswick House is an independent co-educational school based in Malta and established in 1905, catering for pupils from two to eighteen.