Turning lessons up to 11 with rock star times tables

24th April 2015 at 01:00
Contest aims to roll out the red carpet for numeracy skills

Are your pupils having trouble learning their times tables? Perhaps it's time to don a long curly wig, unleash the air guitar and rock 3 x 8.

That's the approach that Bruno Reddy, pictured right, took with his Year 7 class. Now his vision of turning a tough maths chore into a hard rock celebration is set to take centre stage in a spectacular event for pupils across London.

The Times Tables Rock Wrangle in June aims to do for multiplication what the spelling bee has done for onomatopoeia. Some 160 students from 40 schools in the city are being invited to receive red carpet treatment for a week, before challenging each other to race through their times tables via an online test at the grand finale event.

There will be an air guitar competition, fancy dress photos and roving paparazzi - all adding to the heady atmosphere of students being worshipped for their prowess at mental arithmetic. And in true rock god style, the overall winner and their team will be treated to a helicopter ride over London.

Mr Reddy, formerly head of maths at King Solomon Academy in London, said: "It began five years ago when I realised my Year 7 class didn't know their tables off by heart. I wanted a fun way to practice, so I gave them rock names and played rock music."

As the students got quicker at times tables calculations, they moved up the rankings from "wannabe" (taking more than 10 seconds to answer a question) to "rock star" (less than 3 seconds) and finally "rock god" (less than a second).

At the end of the year, the school held a red carpet day to celebrate everyone's achievements, with the top scorers battling it out in a times tables competition.

"Then one of my students said, `Why not turn Times Tables Rock Stars into an online game?' " Mr Reddy recalls.

So he did. Some 1,100 primary and secondary schools are now signed up to the Times Tables Rock Star site (ttrockstars.com). The students log in, then choose a rock name and an avatar. By answering times tables questions, they can win rewards to spend on new clothing and accessories for their avatar.

Mr Reddy won a grant through the Shine Trust's Let Teachers Shine competition last year to expand the approach into more London schools by training teachers and exploring different strategies. Now Shine's partner Bloomberg, the financial information company, has agreed to host the Times Tables Rock Wrangle grand finale on 26 June.

Mr Reddy said: "The pupils will be racing each other on the computers - they are not standing up in front of the audience - but the plan is for there to be big screens so spectators can watch.

"Why rock? A colleague once called me a `rock star' as a compliment for working hard. There was something about being called a rock star that I loved and I wanted to pass that feeling on to the pupils. Although I do have to do some educating of pupils on who the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Gene Simmons and Axl Rose are."

Craig Barton, an advanced skills teacher at Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton and TES adviser for secondary maths, said: "The best way to motivate students is some kind of competition or rivalry, even if it's just a game at the end of a lesson. Doing this on a larger scale chimes well and has resulted in [the programme's] popularity. It's amazing how competition motivates students."

But Rob Eastaway, co-author of Maths for Mums and Dads, said it was important to remember that there was more to the subject than memorisation. "At the moment there seems to be a shift back to `knowing maths' meaning `knowing your times tables', but real-life maths is not just about doing things fast, it's about thinking as well," he said.

Let Teachers Shine (bit.lyLetTeachersShine) recognises the work of educators teaching maths, English and science to disadvantaged pupils with grants of up to pound;15,000. Programme manager Raf Jezierski praised the impact of Mr Reddy's approach. "With Times Tables Rock Stars, Bruno has demonstrated that there is an opportunity to improve the maths achievement of less advantaged children by really focusing on the basics," he said.

`So much is built on times tables'

Craig Barton, advanced skills teacher at Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton, acknowledges it can be hard to make times tables fun.

"There is nothing duller than times tables. It is easy to spice up some areas of maths, but that's a really tricky one," he says. "However, if a kid can't do their times tables, they're going to have problems solving equations with algebra, simplifying fractions, working with negative numbers or using bigger numbers.

"So much of Year 7 is built on times tables. The danger is that already some students have got a negative presumption about maths. And times tables are the essence of boring maths.

"That's why Times Tables Rock Star has done so well, because it's a way of re-engaging kids."


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