Times tables – a matter of life and death?

Recently I took my youngest daughter to visit a university in the north-east of the UK, which involved a round trip of nearly 500 miles and an overnight stay. There’s a general election due in less than three months, which means we’re into that ‘interesting’ phase of the electoral cycle where all the parties try to outcompete each other either with bribes incentives for certain groups (‘Unicorns for every five-year old!’) or to outdo themselves with demonising whatever group is the scapegoat this month. If you’ve ever seen the Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen sketch, you’ll know what I mean.

So what has this to do with times tables? Well, one of the announcements was for every child to know their times tables up to 12 by the time they leave primary school (i.e. by age 11), and by ‘know’ they appear to mean memorise.

I have a number of misgivings about this. Firstly rote learning without understanding isn’t particularly useful. Memorisation isn’t education. Secondly, as the work of Jo Boaler has remarked students perform much better at maths when they learn to interact more flexibly with maths (number sense) rather than than simply remembering the answers. As she points out, calculating when stressed works less well when relying on memory, which is presumably why politicians refuse to answer maths questions when interviewed, as Nicky Morgan the education secretary did recently. In one of my previous jobs I worked in a health sciences department and the statistics on drug errors (such as calculating dosages) were frightening, and there are few things less stressful than someone potentially dying if the answer to a maths problem is wrong.

The outcome of all this memorisation is that the application suffers. As we travelled back there was a radio phone-in quiz and as times-tables were in the news one of the questions was zero times eight. The caller answered eight, and was told they were wrong. A few minutes later someone else called to tell the presenter that they were wrong because zero times eight was eight, but eight times zero was zero. And this is the real problem. While maths is seen (and taught) as a recipe, a set of instructions to follow, misconceptions like this will continue to prosper. Personally, I see maths as more of a Lego set – a creative process where you combine different components in different ways to get to the end result you want. As Jo Boaler has said “When we emphasize memorization and testing in the name of fluency we are harming children, we are risking the future of our ever-quantitative society and we are threatening the discipline of mathematics”. Unfortunately, I’m doubtful whether that will count for anything against the one-upmanship in the closing months of an election campaign.