Maths Tutoring:~ The times tables debate


Times tables – to know or not know

Jo Boaler, a professor of Mathematics Education and author of the book The elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children Learn and Love Maths has been criticising the government's plans to ensure that children have memorised their times tables by the age of eleven. I probably have no right really to comment, but we all have opinions and the following are mine:

Is she right or is she wrong? She highlights the dangers of inducing stress in children who find it difficult to recall the answers when pressed to respond quickly verbally. I think she is right here, but I do think it is important children master their times tables. But to me it matters nothing if a child takes a moment or two longer to respond with the answer: in fact it could even be a good sign. The child may be checking their answer by adding or subtracting from one of the multiplications they are sure of. And this hints at what I believe is important, which is that times tables are used and are worked with and the child can obtain flexibly the answer to any multiplication sum up to those in the 12 times table. But how they do this, or how they check their answers are up to them. Becoming fluent with times tables should also involve and develop the skills of adding, subtracting, and division. For example, a child should realise that if they are not sure what 5 x 6 equals but know 5 x 5 is 25, then they can just add another 5 to 25 (make sure they don’t try adding a 6!) to get the answer. Children do need to know how to master their times tables. If they don’t, they will not understand division, fractions, algebra etc.

The government are planning to test the students’ abilities online with timed tests, and the assessment of teachers’ performance will be affected by these results. There are two things to be wary of here:

1. The stress of timed tests will put unnecessary pressure on a struggling less-confident student.

2. The additional pressure placed on the teacher is unwelcome, and whenever targets are set, practices are distorted.

There is also the question as to whether every child can be good at every subject, but that is another story...

Incidentally, other missing essentials in children’s learning can be adding, subtracting, and multiplication of minus numbers. Failure to learn these skills early on, also, causes problems later on.

When I was at primary school, my mother was concerned that I was not being taught my times tables and queried this with a teacher. She was told not to worry, because everyone would have calculators soon. Oh dear! My mother may not be academic, but she is wise, and although she was a maths-phobic herself, taught me my times tables, and I can still remember one of the methods she used. She drew a Times table big grid on a large piece of card and each time I became confident of one multiplication sum I could draw one football picture in that square. It may not have worked with everyone, but it did with me. And this illustrates another of my beliefs that parents should be actively involved in a child's learning at Primary school.

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