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Mastery mathematics: Pedagogically powerful or massively misunderstood?

Annu Pabla, University of Derby

With an increasing global demand on mathematical skills, how prepared are we in England to compete with international countries, particularly in relation to the teaching and learning of the principles and practices of mastery mathematics in primary education? Mastery learning emerged from the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom who coined the term ‘learning for mastery’. Bloom (1968) believed that nearly all learners, when provided with the more favourable learning conditions of mastery learning such as breaking down learning into smaller steps, could truly master academic content.

Principles of mastery circulate around whole-class teaching, deep and greater depth learning and a process of broken-down steps through concrete, pictorial and abstract representations to scaffold and challenge learners. Although defined principles of mastery consist of deep, long-term, secure and adaptable understanding of the subject, the practice around this is predominantly adopted and adapted from international systems due to a national growing recognition from the Department for Education in promoting mathematical thinking to achieve depth and fluency to obtain a strong grasp within the subject (DfE, 2014). The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) retrieved through assessment performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics every three years has been the key driver for England to emulate the success in East Asia; however, research scoped in UK literature through a systematic literature review (Williams, 2020; Boylan et al., 2018) recognises the need for further evaluation into the principles of mastery practice to fully understand its potential to enhance mathematical abilities within the classroom.

‘With varied understanding of how the mastery approach utilises ability grouping, provides adequate intervention and maintains a variety in pedagogical approaches, teachers face huge uncertainty of how mastery practices should be implemented.’

Although being applied in schools in England for nearly seven years, mastery mathematics practice is still not fully understood. With varied understanding of how the mastery approach (Drury, 2014) utilises ability grouping, provides adequate intervention and maintains a variety in pedagogical approaches, teachers face huge uncertainty of how mastery practices should be implemented. Anecdotal evidence from primary mathematics teachers and leaders from regional primary schools suggest that the use of textbooks and schemes of work add to the confusion of whether mastery practice in mathematics is more effective with a structural format or through planning lessons around the daily progress that pupils make. With mixed views on textbooks and its ability to meet a range of learning needs while compromising the awe and wonder in the classroom, it is not surprising that primary practitioners often lack confidence to determine the best course of action for implementing mastery teaching (Blausten, 2020). Furthermore, the term ‘mastery’ itself is not used in the national curriculum (DfE, 2014) suggesting that mastery teaching in mathematics is a choice as opposed to a legal requirement. But, how much, if any, of this ‘choice’ is mandatory? More importantly, what does this ‘choice’ look like in primary mathematics? The lack of clarity, guidance and evidence around this is possibly why, after nearly seven years of implementation, primary teachers are still unclear about how to teach mastery effectively while encouraging active mathematical thinking among their pupils.

In the wider context, a huge challenge facing primary teachers is the comparison to the PISA framework which itself has disputed issues around portraying accuracy in performance. Addressing deficiencies within primary mathematics through a one-sized approach that assesses secondary-aged pupils against differing scales and markers on an international scale is questionable in its ability to determine best practice for primary-aged pupils in England. Additionally, the pressures of adopting international policy and practice in England without a comprehensive study into respective cultures, beliefs and expectations places unfair demands on teachers to abruptly reform and sometimes replace their classroom practice without evaluation.

With a large emphasis on inclusive practice, catering for differing needs and promoting a growth mindset, adopting international practice that does not necessarily prioritise these elements is undoubtedly going to be problematic. Primary education should liberate rather than ‘control’ or ‘perceive to control’ professional practice; currently there is not enough evidence that the teaching of mastery allows professionals to exercise levels of autonomy, and therefore it could be argued that the teaching of mastery could actually act as a possible barrier to learning instead of assisting it. How much do we really know about mastery, its origins and theoretical nature to maximise its pedagogical ability, or is it acceptable to settle for an interpretation that may not be suited to primary schools in England?


Blausten, H., Gyngell, C., Aichmayr, H., & Spengler, N. (2020). Supporting mathematics teaching for mastery in England. In F. Reimers (Ed.) Empowering teachers to build a better world (pp. 29–49). Springer.

Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2)

Boylan, M., Maxwell, B., Wolstenholme, C., Jay, T., & Demack, S. (2018). The mathematics teacher exchange and ‘mastery’ in England: The evidence for the efficacy of component practices. Education Sciences, 8(4), 202. 

Department for Education [DfE] (2014). National curriculum in England: Framework for key stages 1 to 4.

Drury, H. (2014). Mastering mathematics: Teaching to transform achievement. Oxford University Press.

Williams, J. (2020). Mastery mathematics: But who is the slave? Education for Tomorrow, 1.