Matt Johnson’s belief in the potential of every student stems from his own experience. ‘I got 6Ds and 2Es when I was at school. I was told by my career adviser that people like me don’t go to university.’ Matt did go to university and got a degree in electronic engineering. After starting his teaching career in further education, he has been teaching secondary maths for eight years. ‘Being in charge of the curriculum, I can affect every child’s life.’
Coop Academy Grange decided to start Maths Mastery after being placed in special measures. The priority for Matt was for students to have a deeper understanding of maths. He’d observed Shanghai teaching methods, the approach used by Maths Mastery, and wanted to develop his own lessons. ‘I was trying to do bits and pieces in my lesson but finding it difficult because we were on a traditional curriculum.’
A year later Matt attended his first Mastery training session. ‘The initial training was very powerful. We turned up and there was a bag full of things on the table – I found out they were manipulatives – and that we were actually going to use these to solve things. That made the understanding so much easier. Instead of focusing on the procedures we were using them so students could figure things out for themselves – it was a big wow moment.’
That was four years ago. Maths Mastery is now embedded throughout the school – and you can see the difference in the classrooms. ‘The students are now sitting in groups instead of rows, so they can have conversations about the maths. A maths classroom looks lively now, it’s energetic, they’re talking about the maths. I’ve got a couple of catchphrases that I use in the department and one is ‘Grange Maths – teaching for understanding not for tricks.’
The new appetite for maths shows in the results. In 2018-2019 the average grade for maths was a grade lower than in other subjects. Last year the average maths grade was 1/3 higher than other subjects. ‘It’s showing in our results that we’re moving forward.’
One student stands out to Matt as having transformed through the difference in approach. ‘She was struggling to get a grade 3. She didn’t like maths at all.’ Using the Mastery methods, Matt slowed things down. ‘When we looked at something we looked at why it was happening, not just because Mr Johnson said so. We went through that deeper understanding. That boosted her confidence.’ Last year, she left Grange with a grade 8 in maths.
Matt’s also seen a powerful transformation in a colleague, who had been struggling with observations despite his twenty years’ experience. Matt encouraged him to slow down and spend more time with the Mastery slides. ‘When he started to go through the lessons, he started to enjoy it. His maths ability is absolutely off the chart, but it’s making him think. And he enjoys that – he enjoys that challenge.’
When Matt later observed his lesson, he was stunned by the change. ‘I was blown away. It was the best lesson I’d ever seen him teach. You could tell it was like that every lesson. The students knew exactly what they were doing. Before he’d be at his table quite a lot when he was teaching. He’s now moving around the room. He’s like an NQT in September even though he’s been teaching for 20 plus years.’
Matt would encourage other schools to try Mastery. ‘For schools thinking of starting Mastery I’d say it looks daunting, it’s completely different in terms of the delivery but that leap into the unknown is well worth it for two reasons. First of all, the development of your staff. Teaching has improved incredibly. But more importantly it will pay dividends to any attaining student that you’ve got in any kind of school.’
Matt Johnson is a Maths Teacher and 2nd in department at Co-op Academy Grange, Bradford. In his new role as a Specialist Leader in Education he will be visiting schools to support their Mastery approach. We spoke to him about his experience in October 2021.
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