Time for Tables?

What are the Times Tables (TTs) good for? Should we make kids learn them off by heart? Instant recall? Doesn’t this sort of thing blunt the magic of education?

The Conservatives recently indicated that if they form the next UK Government (after May’s General Election) they will test TTs in primary schools, and if a pupil doesn’t pass the test two years in a row, the Head Teacher will be sacked. Clearly a bonkers idea…(it’s all about the base)….but, this did spark lots of discussions on Twitter about the TTs, and if it makes sense to attempt to get children (KS 1&2) to learn them to the point of instant recall. I think mastery of TTs is an accelerator for learning and achievement in maths in KS2. I also think that pupils need to know them to instant recall, as fast as it takes for them to say out loud 3 x 8 is 24. If they do, then progress through multiplication and division can be rapid; and maths is a hierarchical subject..progress depends on mastering the previous step. The TTs give a foundation for the next steps. That’s what I think. So, schools should expect pupils to know TTs as early as possible.

However, I’m not a teacher, and couldn’t say how schools should go about realising this expectation. Nor should Governments, and they certainly shouldn’t threaten to sack Head Teachers if all pupils haven’t learnt the TTs by a specific age. As I said earlier, bonkers.

However, this did get me thinking of my own experience. I am a professional Scientist. I use mathematics often, including arithmetic. However, my instant recall of TTs had atrophied by the time my own children reached the point of needing to learn them. I had to re-learn them. But, note, not because I needed to know them for my day job. I didn’t. Why not, if they are so fundamental to progression in maths at an early age? Because, they are a stepping stone. Calculators and spreadsheets are now ubiquitous in professional science circles. In my case, by the time I reached 6th form I was carrying a pocket calculator with me wherever I went. At this point I needed higher level maths mastery, not instant recall of TTs. And that is still true. Interesting.

As we progress from novice to expert, what we need to have at the forefront of our minds changes. What knowledge we need also changes. Our approach to the subject changes. Professional Pure Mathematicians probably don’t even deal with integers from one day to the next. So, your average 8 year old needs to know what 7 x 8 is (the hardest one to remember for some reason), but a PhD professional chemist doesn’t (unless they have an 8 year old kid, of course). No appeal to what any other grouping needs to know or not know with respect to TTs is relevant to the question for an average eight year old.

To generalise. What does someone need to know at the particular point that they are at, in order to progress in their studies? (And that is a question for teachers to answer).

56, by the way.


4 thoughts on “Time for Tables?

  1. kal hodgson


    With that lovely pattern I don’t know why it’s considered hard to recall.

    12=3×4 is the only other one with the same pattern.

  2. whatonomy

    It’s interesting to observe that threatening to sack HTs if a child fails indicates that the TTs are the single most important learning objective in school. More important than learning to read. The extrapolation of this theory X approach to motivating school leaders is too terrifying a prospect to contemplate.


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