Education secretary Nicky Morgan recently announced that primary school children will have to sit new computerised maths exams from next year. The tests will go up to and include the 12 times table and schools have been warned that they will be held to account if pupils do not make the grade.
This initiative has sparked great debate as to whether children should be made to learn the times tables or not. But are we not missing the point here?
I don’t think many people would argue that times tables are of no use and we don’t need to learn them. However, should they be held up as a benchmark for deciding whether a child can or can’t do maths? Is this what maths is really all about?
If we go down the route of thinking that maths is all about being able to recall facts accurately and at speed, then is it any wonder that so many children are turned off the subject at such a young age? Surely it is more important to focus on how children understand the times tables rather than simply memorising them. Do they understand why 5 x 7 is the same as 7 x5? Furthermore, if they can’t remember what 7 x 8 is then can they work out the answer from an easier fact such as 7 x 10 or indeed 7 x 5?
Reliance on only memorising facts has the potential to produce a generation of children who will not have the problem solving skills required in the workplace of tomorrow. We need to make sure that our children can use what they do know to work out something that they don’t know. This will help them to become more resilient and to persevere with a problem. In turn, that will give them the motivation and enthusiasm to enjoy and explore the world of maths.
Marcus du Sautoy ( Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University) put it very well when he said:
‘Being a good speller does not make you a good writer, being a good calculator does not make you a good mathematician.’
I could not agree more; knowing your times tables off by heart is not where the real essence of maths lies. It is merely a tool to help you to discover and to understand this extraordinary subject.