Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Times tables, Jim, but not maths as we know it.

I suppose the argument around learning times tables very much hinges on what you're wanting children to learn, and how you're wanting them to apply it. If you want them to be able to work out change in their head or be able to do their budget without a calculator, then sure, sometimes simply 'knowing' that 12x11 is 132 is useful.

If you want children to be good at maths, it's a fairly useless exercise. After all, we teach maths in full knowledge that 90% of people will not use any actual hard mathematics in real life; if we wanted to make maths 'relevant' to everyone we'd simply teach arithmetic. Learning times tables by heart (and indeed, learning any formula or identity by rote) does not make a child good at maths (although it may help them to pass maths exams, which is certainly not the same thing.) Performing maths is about understanding and manipulating formulae to demonstrate a general principle, or to calculate an unknown quantity, and the further you go into maths, the more those manipulations require you not only to know that a^2 + b^2 = c^2, for example, but WHY this is so. Learning to spot patterns and contradictions and construct proofs is not something that can ever be achieved by repetition of taught facts.

Of course there is something to be said for convenience; it is very easy to teach a class of 30 children by making them repeat something until enough of them can remember what you've said to call it a day, but very difficult to teach a class of 30 children to understand something fully and adapt what you have told them to unfamiliar situations. Of course the increasing focus on targets and league tables in education has caused many schools and colleges to dispense with actually educating children and merely repeating the syllabus at them until enough of them can splurge it onto the paper in an exam situation to pass (the amount of times I have asked a question only to be told 'you don't need to know that' is intensely frustrating), and so a return to reciting times tables will suit a lot of schools just fine.

--Chris, a Further Maths student at Greenhead College (@temmychan on Twitter)