Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Times tables - it's a bit more complicated than that

Dear Michael,

I saw your Twitterfeed about the proposed changes to the Maths curriculum and wanted to contribute. I am a primary school teacher and have been working in London for 4 years.

I have followed the debate over the Maths curriculum with the usual sinking feeling I get reading about education policy in the media. The opinions and suggestions made are always so polarised. This seems to be another case; rote-learnt times tables are essential to Maths education v times tables aren't necessary at all. Where is the middle ground?

In my experience, it is absolutely vital that the bedrock of Maths teaching and learning is understanding. Children need to develop a fundamental understanding of number and place value. When teaching, I have found learning to be most fruitful when I enable children to make links and discoveries for themselves. I always try to ensure that Maths does not become a series of procedures and rules. Where there are rules/procedures to learn, I discuss with the children the reasoning behind them.

This does not negate the fact that children's Maths work, both mental and written, becomes more fluent, rapid and accurate when they can rely on knowing some key number facts. These might be number bonds to 10, 20, 100, or even (whisper it) times tables. Children that know these facts by heart will generally calculate more efficiently and quickly so long as (and here is the key part) their rote learning is underpinned by a solid understanding of what their number facts mean and why they are important.

The retweets in your feed relate various experiences of Maths learning - different approaches to teaching have had differing impacts on a variety of learners. Surely, this shows that Maths teaching and learning is too complex an issue to reduce to a simple 'times tables good or bad?' slanging match. I realise that Twitter's 140 characters force users to reduce arguments to a very concise form, but many newspaper articles seem to write about education in the same way. To quote Ben Goldacre on a different topic  - 'it's a bit more complicated than that'.


Catrin Hepworth