Review by Sarah Khan

Early career class teacher, Fern Hill Primary

7 Jun 2020, 5:00


Mastery in Primary Mathematics: A guide for teachers and leaders

By Tom Garry






6 Feb 2020

Our reviewer finds a useful reference for those starting out with mastery, but one that fails to deliver on its promise

The terminology of maths mastery has been kicking around for a few years now. I hovered around it as a teaching assistant, but came face-to-face with it as a recently qualified teacher suddenly expected to teach from a mastery philosophy. Yet there seemed to be a lack of consensus as to what maths mastery entailed; was it simply White Rose downloads and manipulatives, or was there something deeper? Like many new teachers, I suspect I did not have the full confidence to deliver outstanding maths mastery lessons given the diversity of definitions and views about it. I therefore set out with the hope that Tom Garry’s book would bring clarity and confidence to my practice.

The introduction laid the groundwork – that this was a revolutionary method that would help “all pupils to learn the school mathematics curriculum to a high standard” and was “making this possibility (of passing SATs) a reality for almost all children”. As a year 6 teacher, this seems to be a tall order. I have spent the year using everything at my disposal to help children progress in maths and to give them the skills and confidence to meet age-related expectations. To be honest, the results (despite a lack of formal SATs this year) were mixed and I had to acknowledge that time was too limited with some children to achieve this goal. I was sceptical that mastery could deliver on this promise.

Surely this is already part of the teachers’ standards and not a new approach?

The definition offered in the opening chapter was vague, giving broad principles already in circulation. This was compounded by the statement that mastery means having “high expectations for all pupils”. Surely this is already part of the teachers’ standards and not a new approach? Nor is this exclusive to maths. Sadly, the first two chapters regurgitated the view that we shouldn’t believe some children can’t learn mathematics because this hampers their progress. I found this assumption that we pigeonhole children and restrict their opportunities a little too laboured.

The author’s general opinion about the knowledge and skills of primary teachers seemed low, as if by assuming that most are deficient in some way would bring them onside with the mastery approach – not a particularly appealing basis for readers who are teaching professionals. I hoped that practical tips and explanations of mastery would redeem things.

Mastery in primary mathematics does provide a useful glossary, and chapters are set out in a logical and coherent order. It doesn’t feel like an intimidating tome, and it can be flicked through and dipped into when the need arises. Every aspect of the approach is covered and described, and it is written in a style that is understandable for teachers with a range of experience in this area. Its clear explanations of key concepts, and diagrams and examples in support of its theoretical explanations, will certainly help to refresh existing knowledge or serve as a handy reference.

Overall then, it is a good introduction and reference for teachers starting out with mastery. It won’t inspire anyone to take up the approach, and it won’t help you decide if you are thinking about whether it is for you. The author hasn’t included much by way of testimonial, and does not make any sort of emotive appeal other than the aforementioned trope of high expectations.

At heart, without the detailed discussion of why mastery is better than traditional methods, I found it functional but uninspiring. It certainly isn’t the “perfect book for achieving mastery in maths”, as its blurb says. However, if you have already come across the language of mastery or need to implement it and would like some concrete guidance to get started, then this book will make a useful companion.

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  1. This phrase was enough to make me never to want to use this guide: “to learn the school mathematics curriculum to a high standard” and was “making this possibility (of passing SATs) a reality for almost all children””

    I am always suspicious of teachers who produce books claiming to have all the answers but am particularly suspicious of those who set the passing of SATs as a measure of their success. Talking about “mastery” implies the ability to do what tests test, rather than develop an understanding of the subject and the ability to apply that understanding. It is rather like knowing that 6×8=48 but not how to work it out if you have forgotten or that 6x4x2 gives the same answer, etc.