A global look at Mathematics Mastery: Triumphs and challenges at Ark Lajpat Nagar III, India

Blog: Alexi Makris, Secondary Development Lead

A global look at Mathematics Mastery: Triumphs and challenges at Ark Lajpat Nagar III, India

Posted: 22/01/16

When a child walks into the classroom at 8.30 am, munching a packet of crisps and washing it down with an energy drink, you know their behaviour and concentration levels may be lacking.

But try replacing the junk food with no food at all. Add in a home-life where furniture and clean running water are completely absent and a ‘normal’ day involves scavenging the streets for anything of value.

These are just some of the challenges facing teachers at Ark’s Lajpat Nagar III School in South Dehli, which provides education to some of the city’s most disadvantaged children.

The school’s progress since opening four months ago has been staggering. A colleague and I witnessed this first hand when we went out to Delhi to support the teachers in developing their practice and delivery of the Mathematics Mastery programme.

We were inspired by so many elements, but first and foremost by the teachers. In the face of repeated challenges, they have embedded a set of routines befitting any established primary school in the UK.

Some of these routines were completely alien to us, such as the need for a full-time security guard to catch the ‘runners’ – children so unused to spending a day in a structured environment that they intermittently ran out at any opportunity. Other routines involved extra lessons in hand-washing (for children unused to water on tap), having two meals a day and having lessons delivered simultaneously in English and Hindi.

In Kindergarten and Year 1 alone, pupils’ ages ranged from 3 to 7, making differentiation particularly challenging. This was due to local parents doing everything they could to secure a school place for their child – including providing less than accurate birth dates. A completely understandable move when you consider a school place includes a safe place to spend each day, regular meals, medical support – and to top it off – a multilingual education.

We were hugely excited to see the Mathematics Mastery principles in action.  The teachers have done a tremendous job embedding our six-part lesson structure, and key principles of the approach (such as number sense, mathematical talk and concrete, pictorial and abstract representations) underpinned every lesson.

It was particularly interesting to witness the cultural difference in the way the teachers had been taught maths themselves – compared to how they were now teaching maths to their pupils, based on our approach.

For example, we sat down with the teachers and did a ‘number talk task’ we commonly use during training, asking the group to compare the mental methods used to calculate 18 x 5. Usual responses include:

  • ‘I did 10 x 5 and 8 x 5 and added the answers together’
  • ‘I did 9 x 5 and then doubled it’
  • ‘I did 20 x 5 then subtracted 2 x 5’
  • ‘I did halving and doubling so calculated 9 times 10’

This is a useful task and leads to discussions of pictorial representations, the distributive and associative properties of multiplication, and builds flexibility in approaching multiplication problems.

However, we were intrigued to find the majority of the Lajpat Nagar III team solved the calculation using the same mental method – they all pictured the formal written multiplication algorithm for 18 x 5 in their heads.

We have rarely encountered teachers in the UK mentally evaluating 18 x 5 like this, let alone almost everyone in the room! But they’d all had been through an education system which conditioned them to follow a narrow approach to multiplication; a limitation of exclusively focusing on rote learning of times tables.

Yet, despite this narrow procedural experience in their mathematical education, the team were open and enthusiastic to teach in a new way – focussing on real number sense and conceptual understanding.

It was inspiring to see teachers challenging their own understanding of mathematics in order to genuinely make a lasting impression on the lives of their pupils. ‘Transforming the lives of children’ is a phrase commonly used in the education and third sector here in the UK, but we’ve never seen a more poignant and tangible example in practice.

Challenges still remain. Red tape and infrastructure present significant issues. On the last day of our visit, the solid concrete ceiling above the boys’ toilet fell down – showering debris where the boys stand (fortunately none were there when this happened). Providing a safe environment for children is just one obstacle which the team have dealt with and continue to overcome.

Quite simply, we were blown away. So we want to say thank you to Urmila, Aniket, Kruti the whole team at Lajpat Nagar III, and the Ark International team for making the trip possible. We were the lucky ones in seeing this incredible work in action, the difference they’re making, and we’re grateful to have played whatever small part we could in giving support.