Maths - Patterns of learning

4th November 2011 at 00:00
Those who struggle with times tables may be problem-solvers

As the new Year 7 students come to secondary school, there is always that divide between those who are very comfortable with their times tables and those who are not. Inevitably, those who can do their times tables well are the ones who are deemed good at maths, when in fact being able to memorise tables is just a matter of "knowledge", which is rather low on Bloom's taxonomy.

Not many maths teachers would question that being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide reasonably quickly are useful skills. But all of these are just arithmetic and quite a small, albeit crucial, part of mathematics as a whole.

If you have students who are quick with their times tables, try giving them a tiling pattern where there is more than one answer and ask them how the pattern should proceed. Some will certainly relish this challenge, but there will be others who are bewildered by there not being a single "right" answer.

If you want to really throw them a curve ball, get the whole class to do it and ask them whose answer they like best. It is unlikely they will be used to being allowed an opinion in maths.

Mathematics is about looking for patterns, conjecturing what is happening, then testing and refining those conjectures. Recognising that developing problem-solving skills is more valuable than remembering algorithms is a step towards what real mathematicians do. Many students have asked me if - when I went to university - we had to do really big sums and multiply 10- digit numbers together. While this may seem silly, how would they ever imagine it any differently if this has been their main experience of maths?

But, even better than training students to be problem-solvers, is developing their skills at becoming problem-spotters.

Do my students practise skills? Certainly. Measuring and construction skills are very much in need of practice. Arithmetic is certainly worth spending some time perfecting and algebra becomes easier with practice.

But, from experience, I know that the students who "can't" do their times tables can often spot patterns when they are given an opportunity to work systematically, describe what they see, predict what's going to happen next and test their prediction. If they can do all these things, I can confidently say they are good at mathematics, even if their score on a times tables test suggests otherwise.

Dave Gale is a maths advanced skills teacher in north Somerset. You can find him on Twitter as @reflectivemaths



Camerona has shared a lesson plan for brighter and faster times tables, which is getting positive reviews from the TES community. Try it and tell us what you think. Or try dps66uk's active times tables resource, full of simple and adaptable games.

In the forums

Teachers shares ideas on how to make times tables more interesting for their pupils. And in another thread, TES contributor bluerose shares a wealth of times tables activities and websites.

And if your times tables are terrific, but your word problems lack lustre, there are suggestions from teachers to make them more interesting.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today