Tuesday 14 August 2012

Good at times tables - crap at maths

I was taught times tables in what is now Year 5 but it all got serious the following year when we did the 11-plus in 1956-57. We had to learn them up to 14 and up to the 14 times, though I can only really remember them up to 12 and up to 12 times. These I remember really well. The system used was chanting upwards and backwards. Then the teacher used the bark and point method, walking round the classroom, pointing at a child while she barked the 'times'. It was known that my weak one was 'nine sevens'. and 'seven eights'.

By the time I was 15 I was a serious failure at maths, and got something like 25% at my mock O-level in January. My dear old dad thought this was a bit off, (ie he did his nut) and so talked to his colleague Bill Gibby at Borough Road Training College who had produced a graded book of mock O-level papers. My dad brought him over to see me and Bill said that I had to work through the papers in the book which was by....Bill Gibby. I did that - the answers were in the back, and I think some of the 'methods', though I'm not absolutely sure of that. My dad said to me every week, 'have you done your maths from Bill's book?' And I did.

We sat the exam in June and I passed with, I think from memory was either a B or a C.

Because I had this odd idea to study Medicine even though I did Arts A-levels I ended up at the age of 18 going back to doing Maths which I really couldn't cope with. So I was at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, doing 'First MB' - a kind equivalent to A level in Biology, Maths and Physics!

So, it was here that I learned how to plot graphs for real, do substitution into formulae, and work out chemical equations. However, it was a massive struggle and really only just about scraped through.

My next experience of maths has been working with my children, all of whom seem to have managed very well with maths, much better than I ever did. My 11 year old has done quite a lot of chanting of times tables in Year 6 and my 7 year old seems to spend a lot of time drawing out times tables on a white board. However, I think he has some trouble in understanding what they're for or even what they are.

So, I have a sense in which I'm great doing up to 12 times tables, very very weak at anything in maths which involves handling of too many variables or too many shifting things. This is hard to put into words. I like the logic of simple algebra but the moment a problem has too many either/ors I start to feel tense. Sudoku attracts me but fills me with despair unless it's ones for children.

Where does this leave me? I really don't know if  times tables are as 'Golem' in the previous blog post says, 'fundamental'. If they are, they don't seem to have helped me very much - even though I'm 'good' at them. And various people have tweeted me, including James on the blog post before last, who can do Maths at university level without knowing them.

I remain agnostic about them.