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Building your policy house of brick or straw

26th Jun 2014

Entry by David Halpern, CEO of BIT and the UK’s National Adviser on What Works

Do you remember the story of the three little pigs who each build a house? One builds a house of straw, another of sticks, and the other of brick. The first two build their houses very fast, and laugh at the third for his continuing labours. But then along comes the wolf, who huffs and puffs, and blows the first two houses down. It’s hard work to build a house of bricks, but it really turns out to be worth the effort.

At the end of last week I visited a school to look at a school taking part in a trial of the (Singapore) maths mastery program, along with Jeremy Heywood (the Cab Sec), Chris Wormald (Perm Sec at Education), and Kevan Collins (Educational Endowment Foundation). The program involves kids ‘mastering’ several different approaches to a maths problem, and also incorporates a number of other behavioural principles known to be important in educational attainment. But it was also a glimpse into a more evidence-based approach to policy and practice that has the potential to transform not only education, but every aspect of public services.

Singapore, unlike some of its Asian neighbours, didn’t always perform well on Maths. But in the last PISA, Singapore came 2nd out of 65 nations – while we languished at 26th. At least part of Singapore’s high performance is put down to its ‘Maths Mastery’ programme, developed by its Ministry for Education. It would have been so easy – and tempting – just to import the program. But instead, the school we saw was one of 85, involving 3,000 pupils, taking part in the largest and most robust trial of the Mastery approach in the world. [For more on this and other EEF programmes, see their toolkit: ]

We saw a primary class where the children were using the Mastery approach to learn addition, and that tricky old issue of carrying over the ten(s). First the children were using physical blocks to do the addition. Then they used a combination of lines (for the tens) and dots (for the ones), ringing a group of ten dots and carrying them over. Finally, they were doing the addition with numbers, carrying across the one in the way you probably still do today. The idea is that by building up the understanding from the concrete to the abstract, the kids learn deeper and better. And the class doesn’t move on until they’ve all got the hang of – mastered – the approach.

The Maths Mastery approach also provides guidance to the teacher about how to explain the approach, and creates a sense of rapid learning (and even physical movement) in the classroom, providing a structured but fun atmosphere as it went – developing habits and a behavioural scaffold for learning that was impressive to behold. This includes nurturing self-monitoring of performance, and the types of ‘executive functioning’ and peer and self-learning that psychologists from Vygotsky forward have noted as key to development. The teacher’s praise was also carefully worded, much on the lines that Carol Dweck has documented – instilling a ‘mindset’ that performance comes from effort and striving, not inherent ability. Dweck showed that, after a maths test, kids that were given a feedback saying ‘good effort’ subsequently performed significantly better than kids that were told they were ‘smart’, after a follow-up of a really tough maths test, then one of a similar level to the original level of difficultly. In fact, the effect was so strong that the kids told they were smart actually did worse than they did originally. Dweck’s argument it is critical for teachers and parents to instil a ‘growth mindset’ – a theory of mind that performance comes from effort, not innate ability, so that when a child (or adult!) faces difficulty they struggle and strive. In contrast, what does a child do when faced with a bit of tricky maths, if they think it’s about natural aptitude? They give up. The Maths Mastery approach, just as Dweck would advise, shows kids that maths is about effort – albeit in small steps – not just innate ability. [For more on Carol’s work see ]

The trial result is due in Spring next year. It will show whether the approach works – and equally importantly (before every school rushes to adopt it) whether it doesn’t. The trial is also large enough to show if it works for some schools and pupils better than others.

But the real take home message is not the specifics of the trial, but the fact that the trial is happening. This class, and this school, is one of thousands now taking part in controlled trials across the UK. There are now an incredible 2,400 schools, taking part in 87 different trials (74 or which are RCTs). That’s around 500,000 pupils involved, organised and funded by the independent Education Endowment Fund – itself only set up in 2010-11 (and headed by the excellent Kevan Collins, with us on the visit). And the EEF is itself just one of a series of ‘What Works’ institutions to building and translating such evidence.

It’s hassle, and effort to do such trials. It also takes a little longer (but not much) than just jumping on the latest ‘new thing’. But it’s an approach builds a body of practice and policy built of brick, not of straw – able to withstand the huffs and puffs of political and academic fashion. It’s a lesson for more than those kids in that classroom, but for all of us. Imagine a future where everything we do in policy and practice is built on such robust empirical foundations. That’s a future to be passionate about, even if others laugh at your labours now.