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Frances Mwale: "The thing about times tables is that learning them is not really about boils down to rote learning"

Time and times again

Frances Mwale reflects on new times tables testing for 11 year-olds

Posted by Stephanie Broad | January 09, 2016 | Teaching

Is the Government’s latest educational announcement on times tables testing another example of a lack of trust? Does Nicky Morgan really think that teachers of primary-aged pupils do not fully appreciate that a sound knowledge of times tables is highly desirable and makes so many other algorithms quicker and easier to master? Why do we need another high stakes test for our young learners?

The thing about times tables is that learning them is not really about mathematics. Of course it involves numbers, but the sequential learning of numbers requires a rather different skillset to the solving of puzzles and problems or investigating patterns. It boils down to rote learning.

For some children the rote learning of anything, including times tables, comes very easily. Most others are usually quick to master the 2s, 5s and 10s because the patterns are simple and repetitive. But, for a small number of learners, committing any type of sequence to memory is problematic. This is why over the past 30 years of my teaching career, so many innovative ideas have been brought to the fore to help children master their tables: there are some wonderful times table raps and rhymes; there are computer-based drill and practice activities to bolster up the impact of chanting repeatedly through the various tables, until that repetition makes the numbers stick; there is a plethora of games to put this knowledge into practice.

The learning of times tables is undoubtedly very important. Teachers do and have always put a great deal of time into this area of memory learning and for those who find themselves, despite striving, unable to remember, ways and means have been devised so that the answers can be calculated, albeit much more slowly than ‘instant’ recall: many will know the trick with your fingers and thumbs to come up with 9x table answers. To remember 8 x 8 = 64, just think, ‘I ate and I ate and was sick on the floor!’

In my school, we already encourage mastery of tables because they are so very useful. Pupils work hard to gain certificates for knowing their tables - usually by the end of year four - and are always keen to come along to be tested for the next: Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum. In this way, we identify strugglers early on too, try to find out reasons for their barriers to success and then put interventions in place to help them move forwards. 

The thing that perplexes me most is what the nation will gain by sitting 10 and 11 year-olds down in front of screens, time-bound and pressured, to see who can recall the numbers quickly and who cannot.

Frances Mwale is Prep Headmistress at Farlington School    

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