Tables may taint maths

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Multiplication and icons were on the agenda of the British Psychological Society conference

Times-tables are favoured by Conservatives and Labour alike, but they still strike fear into children, tainting their attitude to maths for years to come, research suggests.

Instant recall of multiplication facts is now a key part of the traditionalist campaign being waged by the two main political parties. The government-backed national numeracy project even calls for a return to whole-class chanting.

But, thanks to poor teaching, multiplication tables are a frightening obstacle, say academics from Plymouth University. Too many children are grilled in front of their classmates - the technique most likely to destroy confidence.

Schools, meanwhile, lack any standard method of teaching or assessing their pupils' progress.

Wendy Fortescue Hubbard and Fraser Reid call for new, more positive methods of getting children to learn tables: most teachers, they say, simply revert to the way they were themselves taught.

The researchers told the Edinburgh conference of the British Psychological Society that there are numerous interpretations of the national curriculum requirement for "mental recall of multiplication facts".

These include: recall facts accurately, but without a time limit; recite tables in front of a teacher; say a sequence of multiples correctly; score a certain percentage on a written times-table test; and be able to respond quickly to questions fired at them in front of their peer group.

Teachers are "often ready to test without giving the pupils the tools necessary to help them commit the facts to memory".

Of particular concern is the number of teachers who test pupils in front of their peer group, because this is the method most likely to induce fear. Others mistake mechanical accuracy for understanding.

Most teachers go up to the 12-times table, although the national curriculum only requires fluency up to 100. Teachers naturally tend to teach tables the same way as they were taught, and most pupils are taught to memorise the tables in sequence, giving rise to the belief that the hardest tables to learn are the 7, 8 and 9 times tables.

Some 16-year-olds felt less confident about their tables than they had done at the end of primary school.

What is urgently needed, say the researchers, "is a clear definition of what is meant by mental recall ... and to ascertain how teaching styles and practices can be adapted to provide a positive experience for pupils".

This week shadow Education and Employment spokesman David Blunkett launched a numeracy task force chaired by Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University. Mental arithmetic and multiplication tables are "crucial", said Mr Blunkett.

Anita Straker, director of the National Numeracy Project, said that poor teaching could indeed do damage. But, she said, tables are nonetheless of vital importance and can be taught in an imaginative way.

"I can well imagine that in some cases there are children who end up being very worried because of the methods being used," she said. "But there is a variety of ways of getting children to learn the facts of multiplication and division. These include whole-class chanting - both forwards and backwards. "

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