Times tables and all that

I see Nicky Morgan has decided that the latest educational universal panacea is to get primary school children to be able to do long multiplication and long division, and learn by heart their times tables up to 12 x 12. She sees the latter as so important as to warrant its own section in key stage 2 tests.

What is it about education ministers that makes them able to turn a perfectly reasonable aim ( kids being able to do arithmetic)  into a nonsensical policy (schools being penalised if even a single child doesn’t get through these tests in two successive years)?

Firstly, have they not heard that some children have special educational needs, and that these days, many such children attend mainstream schools?  Does Nicky Morgan actually think that every single child – including those who currently struggle to complete a dot-to-dot puzzle going up to 20 when they are aged 13 – will be able to learn their times tables?  Is this sort of policy going to encourage schools to take on kids with additional needs? Is it, come to that, going to encourage them to take on “difficult” children with a chequered educational history or a tendency to school refusal? I think not.

Secondly – even if the lucky school has just children who attend, work reasonably well and do not have severe special needs – what on earth is this sort of requirement going to do to the curriculum? If you are working under the threat of sanctions because one wretched child couldn’t remember 7 x 8 last year,  are you going to risk actually extending and enriching the curriculum, and challenging and developing your learners in a variety of ways, when that is taking time away from the government-dictated rote learning? Year 6 is often a grind already – this will make it worse.  It will bore the talented mathematicians rigid, and make the subject an ordeal to be dreaded for those who find their memories fail them. No, I am sure this is not the intention – but this is likely to happen unless KS2 teachers are exceptionally brave.

Another problem with the inevitable emphasis on basic arithmetic that this policy will produce, is that it will reinforce the already prevalent – and hugely problematic –  idea that being good at mathematics is about a line of ticks, rather than trying hard problems that you are not sure how to do at first. It may also encourage the idea that having to do any working is a sort of failure.  Great set-up for sending them to secondary school, eh?

Let’s also have a look at what’s actually being required. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on social media suggesting it is archaic to expect children to know multiplication facts, or to perform long multiplication and division – “why don’t we just show them how to use the calculator on their phone” is a common comment.  Whilst I have sympathy with those who object to rote learning per se – I’ve never thought it is exactly a higher level skill, resented it bitterly myself and certainly feel Tory education secretaries place far too much emphasis on it – that’s not the same thing as saying that knowing tables or being able to perform arithmetic by hand is worthless.  If you can’t do arithmetic yourself, you can’t tell when your calculator is giving you a stupid answer, for a start. If you have to resort to a calculator to find 7 x 5, that is likely to slow you down when working on fractions, ratios and all manner of other mathematical problems.   Long multiplication can, if well taught, support the understanding of place value, and the use of helpful “tricks” such as relating 13 x 2 to 13 x 20 and 13 x 0.2.  And whilst I really would not want to see algorithms taught as a substitute for understanding, the ability to follow an algorithm –  performing operations in the correct order and being careful and accurate – is most definitely a useful skill in all sorts of areas (even assembling flatpack furniture!)

What is seriously wrong is the primacy given to these things as opposed to other mathematical competencies, and the idea that tables must be learnt by rote.  I know quite a lot of number facts – for example, I know that 17 x 17 is 289, and that 2 to the power 10 is 1024.  I know similar facts in other areas – the value of Avogadro’s constant and various atomic numbers and masses in chemistry, the value of the speed of light and the universal gas constant in physics….  I never set out to learn these by heart (and would have given you a pretty short answer if you’d asked me to), but they have “stuck”.  If you use things, they do tend to stick.  I don’t think an average kid should necessarily know instantaneously that 9 x 12 = 108, but they should be able to work it out by adding 9 x 10 and 9 x 2 – and if they can do that, they are likely to have much more ownership of that particular fact, and feel more secure with it, than if they’d artificially forced it into their memory by parrot learning.

I’d hoped that now Gove has gone, there’d be a move away from the default “back to the good old days” policies (which seem to largely consist of insisting all children learn the odd bits of the curriculum he and other politicians remember from their own schooldays). Alas not – more short-termism, more pandering to the Daily Fail, minimal thought about genuine education, and the people-management skills of an amoeba.

 

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