'I've searched high and low for reasons to rote-learn times tables, and I can't find them'

18th September 2015 at 17:32
Primary maths

If the question is 8 x 7, the answer is 56.

But if the question is “Why should children learn times tables?” the answer is a bit more complicated.

The answer might be: “Because they are important and useful.” But it might also be, according to some teachers: “Because ministers said so.”

Now a celebrated maths educationalist, Stanford’s Professor Jo Boaler, has waded in. To be clear, she has not said that children shouldn’t learn their times tables. But what she has said is that having high-pressure timed tests in which you have to come up with multiplications on the spot or be seen as a failure can have very serious drawbacks.

Especially if you are seven years old. Or a schools minister who is announcing government plans to improve numeracy in schools.

Boaler takes the view that in order to improve mathematical ability, children should not be force-fed a series of existing facts, but instead encouraged to think mathematically. In this way, she argues, teachers can fight the fallacy that some people are just born good at maths, a belief that research from the OECD Pisa study has found could be behind some of the wide gender disparities in the subject.

For those of us who devoted vast swathes of our (pre-internet) childhood to copying out the 7 times table, this seems a remarkably sensible yet heart-breaking suggestion.

Having looked high and low, I can only find one or two drawbacks to dropping the rote learning of times tables.

Chief, for me, is that I will no longer be able to scare my children into doing their homework so that I can be left in peace to look at David Gandy’s latest range in M&S.

Beyond that, the reasons get fairly thin. Certainly, we must be clear that not knowing your times tables at finger-click speed does not mean you are bad at maths. It just means you’re not good at answering times tables questions quickly under pressure.

So why do students have to learn them? Mainly, it would seem, because Nick Gibb said so. 


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