Times Tables

The government has decreed that children will be tested on their knowledge of times tables at the end of primary school. This is to be a high stakes because the data will be published.

Twitter has, as always, been interesting with a now common flurry of complaints. Some of these claim that testing is an evil and we should not be subjecting children to such processes. It is not clear where these are differentiating between low and high stakes testing or are against any form of testing.

I find it hard to agree with those who object to tests. Perhaps they have not read the research that identifies low stakes tests as being powerful agents to support learning. there is loads.

if it is the high stakes part that they object to then I have some sympathy. It feels to me that primary teachers cannot be trusted to teach children times tables so need to be checked on with some form of external verification. There could also be an element of shaming.

Now teaching times tables should not be any kind of issue. But the third twitter group thinks it is. They claim that to rote learn, learn without reference to meaning, times tables is against the processes of mathematics. Some even go on to claim that children do not need to know times tables as computation can be carried out on calculators. Ken Robinson would love them!

Times tables known so that there is fluency and automaticity is critical for later mathematical development. I find it hard to see how anyone teaching maths does not recognise this. Actually, there is Jo Boaler. She is a professor of mathematics whose name crops up in this kind of debate. She claims not to know her times tables and not knowing has not been a hindrance to her. Tell that to the large number of children who struggle with maths, or give up on maths, who could have been very comfortable with mathematical thinking if only their primary teacher had insisted they learn their times tables.

Learn your tables, by rote if needed, and then add the features that make the tables turn into mathematics. It is not hard. Just needs a little determination and drive from pupils and from their teacher. There is absolutely no reason not to get children to learn times tables and there are reasons to avoid a route to learning which requires understanding to be the main way of learning. Clearly children need to do more than just rote learn times tables. I know of no one who suggests that rote learning is all that is done.

There is no way that rote learning first causes children to struggle with then moving to understanding. In fact, it is much easier to make the understanding move because children will already have the times tables securely in long term memory. Once information is in LTM it becomes possible to use as a chunk when it is moved into working memory.

One of the reasons I think that some teacher think that understanding is needed is that adults tend to need the motivation of knowing why to learn effectively. They often find it hard to hold back their desire for understanding and having a rationale. But children do not have this need to the same extent. Chidren are far more willing to learn because they teacher has deemed it important. We ought not to judge what children need by comparing it with what we, as an adult, need.