Maths Mastery, Shanghai Maths, Teaching for Mastery (TfM) have been buzz words since Shanghai topped PISA league tables in 2009. School minister Nick Gibb is a passionate advocate. He must have been eager to read the evaluation of the Shanghai Maths Teacher Exchange (MTE).
But the Department for Education’s response was somewhat muted. It mentioned only the enthusiasm of teachers taking part and the positive effects in Key Stage One (KS1).
This was followed by a quotation from Gibb. It begins with ‘Standards are rising in our schools, with 84% of pupils…’ I’ll leave readers to complete this. Gibb continued:
‘There has, for example, been a marked increase in the number of primary schools using whole class teaching rather than seeing pupils split by attainment.’
It’s hardly surprising the use of whole teaching rose: it’s a key component of Shanghai Maths as is mixed-attainment teaching. It would be rather odd if teachers taking part in the trial didn’t use its methods. And 'the number of primary schools' refers only to those in the trial not all primaries as implied.
And that’s it.
Why did the analysis provoke such a lukewarm DfE response?
The findings were ‘inconclusive’. There were ‘positive impacts’ in KS1 but ‘no quantifiable evidence’ that MTE leads to improved maths attainment in KS2 ‘over and above changes implemented in contrast schools.’
The authors also said the methodology used in the analysis – a ‘quasi experimental design with a matched comparison group’ – could not ‘establish causality’. The findings, therefore, could not be ‘generalised’. Further evaluation was needed to identify which MTE strategies were most effective and whether Shanghai Maths was cost-effective.
That’s not to say the report isn’t worth reading. It conveys valuable insights. For example, teachers felt that many barriers to implementation were outside schools’ control: funding, teacher turnover, lack of resources, an over-stuffed maths National Curriculum which didn’t allow for strong foundations to be established and Ofsted. Many interviewees thought inspectors would have insufficient understanding of mastery methods and criticise teaching for lack of ‘differentiation’ or ‘pace’.
Some interviewees wanted a standard textbook to ensure consistent maths teaching. Music to Gibb’s ears. However, others used various materials to design their own lessons which matched mastery principles.
One feature of Shanghai Maths unlikely to be taken up by Gibb is low class contact time. Shanghai teachers spent far less time with pupils than did their English peers. But if Gibb is serious about MTE he needs to embrace the whole strategy and not just cherry pick those parts which fit his prejudices – textbooks and whole-class teaching.
Whole-class teaching in this context is not a teacher lecturing to passive pupils. It’s involving all children in skilful questioning designed to make them think. And it’s based on the ‘concrete – pictorial – abstract’ philosophy I met in teacher training college (those alleged hot-beds of Marxist theology which produced the 'Blob').
Perhaps Gibb should spend time using Cuisenaire rods and Dienes blocks before pontificating on how teachers should teach.