Successful adoption for authentic adaption
By Mary Kennedy
What does it mean to know more, remember more and be able to do more mathematics?
As a large British National Curriculum school based in Dubai, we started to ponder this ‘big’ question a few years ago. Three years later we are the first Maths – No Problem! Accredited School in the Middle East. It has been a journey of patience, courage and persistence as we set about to change the mindset of teachers, parents and students to develop classroom environments where students have been empowered to become mathematical thinkers. Conceptually, this has been a fundamental shift requiring the exercise of authentic leadership.
The School of Research Science (SRS) has over 3,600 students from FS to Year 13 and we knew that learning by rote was not the answer. Indeed, we wanted to unlock the creative power of problem-solving. We investigated a range of approaches and styles and kept coming back to the Singaporean approach to teaching mathematics, which is based around the concept of mathematics mastery. This approach is underpinned by the belief that when taught to master mathematical concepts, students develop their mathematical fluency without resorting to rote learning. Moreover, they are able to solve non-routine mathematical problems without having to memorise procedures. We were fortunate to partner with the company Maths – No Problem! (MNP), which could provide the curriculum support and training we needed to achieve this.
This journey started with the first big leadership decision. It was a crucial decision with a school of our size to get right. We had two options available to us. The first one was to introduce the programme into Year 1 and gradually roll it out year by year. This route would have meant that we could focus on training a few teachers at a time to teach with this new approach. However, the downside to this was that maths mastery would be a real struggle for anyone not in Year 1 and it would take several years for the full impact of this approach to be realised.
Our second option was to begin implementing the programme across the whole primary school at the same time. As leaders, we felt this would work better for us strategically with the added benefit of having all staff in the same boat in terms of their professional development needs. In practice, it allowed us the opportunity to invest in an intensive two-day whole-school training session with MNP. For this reason, we decided to adopt the programme in over 80 classes from Years 1 to 6. This was a huge undertaking requiring meticulous planning and precise goal setting.
The first goal we set ourselves was to convince the teachers of the benefit of the mastery approach. It was critical for us to communicate with clarity the vision of what the mastery approach to mathematics would look like in our school. We also needed to have a very clear plan about how we would implement the approach as well as support staff getting to grips with it.
We were fortunate that each year group had a mathematics subject leader who was an outstanding mathematics teacher. They were ideally placed to support their colleagues in the changes and become our teachers’ ‘go-to’ person for support. They helped to direct the CPD needs of the year group, model lessons and team teach alongside our teachers as they delivered the programme. This allowed purposeful coaching and mentoring to develop organically. Teachers were encouraged to observe lessons in other classes as part of their own professional development. This enabled an ethos of a whole school culture of mathematics teaching to begin to develop, something that we had not previously done in a school of our size.
Facing the challenges
Such a cultural shift was not without its challenges. Staff had to depart from a traditional primary mathematics lesson structure where children were put in different groups and given different content based on their anticipated ability. This entailed moving away from the belief that pupils should be working at their own pace and that work needed to be tailored to their specific needs.
The major shift meant that now, when planning lessons, teachers needed to consider some of the following key aspects:
all children moving broadly at the same pace through a lesson;
the Concrete Pictorial Abstract approach; and
differentiating through quality problems not quantity and using multiple methods of solving a problem.
This involved developing a very different outlook from the one that many educators typically have. This was not easy. Change inevitably brings with it doubt and insecurity and it was important to support the teachers through this process in an open and honest manner. It was also important to recognise that the change would not happen immediately and that the whole process needed time in order to succeed.
At times, embedding a new approach to the teaching of mathematics coupled with the expectations that came with it was a struggle. As a leader, from time to time, I too had doubts. However, we persisted, and teachers gained confidence as they began to see the fruits of their efforts. Pupils started to become more fluent and familiar with the new expectations so that by the second year, mathematics at SRS began to flourish.
The impact of change
Across the primary school, we have seen our students’ achievement levels rise. Our learners make continual progress in the GL end-of-year tests and are showing that they can transfer their knowledge and understanding in new situations. The positive outcomes for the students at our school have developed through staff commitment to the process of change. The change has been significant, but this is not to say we are perfect.
What is evident is the revamped school ethos towards mathematics: our teachers are positive and aware of our approach to mathematics mastery. We now have learners who make conceptual sense of the mathematics they are learning. They have more memorable and enjoyable experiences that are more likely to be remembered in the long term. We believe they will also be able to do more as they understand how to push the boundaries of what they know and apply it to solve problems. This brought us back to our initial question three years ago and is one we revisit.
I think our journey can be summed up in the following phrase: “Successfully adopt so you can authentically adapt.”
Top tips for school leaders
Mastering mastery: decide on your own understanding of what ‘teaching for mastery’ means.
Commit to change: for a mastery approach to be successful, all teachers must teach it and all leaders must believe in it.
Know and support your teachers: teachers need to be given training regularly so they can understand how the lessons are designed and how to deliver them.
Take stock and re-evaluate: change takes time. Adopting a mastery approach does not mean instant results. It may take a year or two to assimilate the basics. Keep reviewing the action plan, and adding to and adapting it as mastery evolves within the school.
Stay positive: among the staff, there will always be some teachers who are reluctant to implement the approach. Explore mastery together with these teachers. Reach out to teachers who have successfully adopted the approach so colleagues can talk about their experiences and successes together.
Mary Kennedy is Deputy Head teacher (Primary) at School of Research Science, Dubai http://srsdubai.ae/. You can reach her directly on Twitter @kennedymary86. More information about Maths – No Problem!: https://mathsnoproblem.com/