NPCAT’s curriculum standards lead Nicola Reed reflects on a two-week visit to China as part of the England-Shanghai Mathematics Teacher Exchange…

Since 2014, maths hubs and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) have been working together to develop approaches to mathematics mastery.

Mastering maths means pupils acquiring a deep, long-term, secure and adaptable understanding of the subject.

The phrase “teaching for mastery” describes the elements of classroom practice and school organisation that combine to give pupils the best chances of mastering maths.

Achieving mastery means acquiring a solid enough understanding of the maths that’s been taught to enable pupils to move on to more advanced material.

In 2016, I became a cohort 1 secondary mastery specialist through the NCETM programme.

As part of my role I was given the opportunity to apply for the England-Shanghai Mathematics Teacher Exchange.

The two-week trip consisted of one day at Shanghai Normal University with a welcome ceremony and a lecture by Professor Gu, followed by three days in a secondary school and one day in a primary school each week, as well as a lecture on the middle Sunday.

This was an amazing opportunity to observe in practice the inspiration behind the principles of Teaching for Mastery and learn about the Shanghai education system and culture.

In Shanghai, when teaching for mastery, children are do not passively accept abstract mathematical rules, but rather test, hypothesise, visualise, represent and reason about mathematics.

Each lesson clearly builds on the previous one – there is very little new knowledge within a lesson and there is clear emphasis on linking old knowledge and new knowledge, which develops fluency and encourages retention.

Teachers meticulously consider each part of the lesson, supported by their peers and leaders to deliver the most effective lessons they could.

A key distinction in each lesson was the use of specific and technical mathematical vocabulary to support teaching and learning. Language was not “simplified” to make learning “more accessible” to learners, rather, high expectations of learning and using mathematical terms correctly was promoted.

The Teacher Research Groups (TRGs) were used to critically analyse the impact of pedagogy. A culture of shared responsibility and critical evaluation were encouraged to improve pedagogy and ultimately to improve learning.

Regular TRGs allowed teachers to critically reflect on their own classes and year groups to consider what learning must come before and after the lesson they had observed. In doing so, teachers continued to develop coherent lessons and curriculum which allowed learning to be built upon from the first years to the final years of school.

In summary, though the Shanghai system is different to here in the United Kingdom, thus some systematic aspects cannot be replicated, there is a lot we can learn from mathematics pedagogy in Shanghai and that we could implement and embed into our lessons to improve the learning and outcomes of our students.