I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about learning your times tables.
I feel a little less like a dinosaur this morning. Here’s why. I have not always agreed with the young and distinctly un-dinosaurish Kris Boulton. In this article about lesson planning I think he uses a flawed metaphor and what he argues is plain wrong-headed. I think his latest article, on why children should learn their times tables, is, however, excellent. He writes, “if you simply know that “seven eights are 56” then recalling that fact from our infinitely-capacious long-term memory uses no working memory at all; it liberates a person’s working memory to focus instead upon the more demanding, higher-level ideas.” Common sense, except that common sense is not that common.
I am old-school about some things. There are fundamental benefits to knowing your tables which even Kris does not detail. Firstly, knowing your times tables saves you a huge amount of time. Knowing seven nines are sixty-three saves students doing that ridiculous trick with their fingers they are taught to help them recall their nine-times table. If you want to waste 2 minutes 29 seconds of your life, here’s the trick explained.

Furthermore, estimating whether your answer is roughly right in a swift, accurate manner relies upon knowing your times tables. And one of the joys of working with numbers is seeing the patterns; the fundamental number patterns of the times tables help students appreciate the beauty of mathematics.
Our children do not have to train their memories like I had to, thanks mainly to the new technologies and the ubiquitous mobile ’phone. The thing is, they are examined in exactly the same way that I was examined back in the 1970s. BIDMAS is an acronym for Brackets/Indices/Division/Multiplication/Addition/Subtraction, the order of operation in a mathematical expression. Students learn BIDMAS and how to apply it to ensure they complete a calculation accurately in the correct operational sequence. Three years ago, talking to a Higher Paper mathematics student mid-lesson, I explained how she would have to remember BIDMAS, what it stood for and how to apply it, for the examination. She looked at me with utter incredulity and exclaimed, How on earth will I do that? That moment still makes my heart sink.
Teach students memory skills or prepare them to fail. The move to terminal examinations makes our students’ ability to manage their memory even more important. Our most popular internal CPD programme last year was all about how memory works and how to help students train their memory. We believe there is no such thing as a bad memory, just an untrained one. For instance, the resource below helped me with some boys who, quite stereotypically, found it hard to transfer their learning from their short-term into their long-term memory; we have a number of similarly great training resources available to train teachers how to help students improve their memory skills.
[scribd id=285556635 key=key-MqyPKJSB2KkjNsl656zw mode=scroll]
Tell George. Looking at school budgets I wonder whether George Osborne has made an erroneous calculation. If only he knew his times tables – he would have seen in an instant that he has got his sums wrong…

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This post has 8 Comments

  1. Indeed. Although I think it is only fair to say that Kris has written many very thoughtful, and stimulating other pieces about teaching and learning.
    The debate on memorising things is interesting, but odd. Although, I can see how the hope that being able to remember lots of data, facts and information may be superseded by the use of technology developed over time, this was clearly a false hope. Technology is very useful, but it has turned out that it doesn’t replace the need to know some things to automaticity. But this depends on what stage you are at. School students need to know their times tables, but, for example, professional scientists (such as myself) don’t need to know them, unless they have young kids themselves. Horses for courses.

    1. Maybe it is harder to become a professional scientist without having the memory skills that are being described.
      Also, you frame your point in terms of your professional life being the only situation, besides helping school age children where this might have an impact.
      I find even DIY jobs harder not having the memory skills that might have been better developed in my 1970’s (therefore new age) schooling.

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