Why rote-learning the time tables is still vital

  • Why rote-learning the time tables is still vital

Having the times tables ingrained on the brain is a huge benefit in mathematical problem solving, allowing you to go forth and multiply, says Peter Sumner...

Learning facts just for the sake of it can be very rewarding. Say you learned the capital city of every country in the world, imagine the thrill when you hear mention of Burkina Faso on television and shout “Ouagadougou!” triumphantly at the screen. Of course, facts alone are not enough for a complete contextual understanding of something, but understanding without facts is impossible.

But some would argue that rote learning of anything is not desirable and may actually do untold damage to a young mind, that rote learning without any understanding is pointless. This is only true if you never use any of the acquired information to establish other related facts, solve a problem or follow a train of thought.

Consider having instant recall of the times tables, something that is is arguably only achievable by the rote learning of facts. I accept that you need to have more skills at your fingertips than just knowing the times tables by heart, but once you know them, problem-solving becomes so much easier and faster.

“Times tables can be worked out if you understand numbers”, I hear people say. Probably true, although that’s not an easy task in many cases. I’ve watched children try to do this in Year 6 SATs, and even the famous nine times table trick isn’t really a time-efficient alternative.

So, if you are going to learn the times table by rote, how best to go about it? Often, a new child in school would eagerly tell me that they know the four times table. “Four, eight, twelve, sixteen…” As gently as I could, I would tell them that they weren’t actually reciting the four times table, but simply counting up in fours. What worries me more is why this hadn’t been pointed out to them earlier.

I confess to being sceptical about the efficacy of learning tables by singing them to catchy tunes, because you have to learn the tune and the times tables. For children who find maths and music challenging, this is akin to the non-athlete tackling the obstacle race on sports day. We’ve all seen it.

For the majority of children to have access to instant recall, there is only one way forward: learning the times tables by chanting to a steady rhythm. People love to chant, and for many it has great value – ask any Buddhist. The chant is easy to remember and it is comforting to know that the ‘song’ remains the same.

There are so many ways to make learning though repetition and chanting exciting and motivational, too. Children love to succeed, and the process of gradually learning a times table by chanting, is a rewarding one. From my experience, I believe repeated chanting interspersed with supporting activities is also the best way for children of average and less-than-average ability to learn times tables.

Very bright children might manage without having to rote learn their tables through chanting, but why shouldn’t they learn them in this way if it oils the mechanism of their problem-solving skills? We could use a calendar to count how many days there are in July, but everyone takes the shortcut and uses the memorable rhyme. Why is this any different to learning times tables by rote? Knowing information without having to think about it helps the brain to keep the focus on the path to the solution.

Problem: Jayden has 56 conkers. He wants to share all his conkers between 8 of his friends. Jayden knows that eight sevens are 56. The leap from knowing this to working out that 56 shared by eight equals seven is not a quantum one. But unless you know instantly that eight sevens are 56, however, working out the share is tough.

You can almost pinpoint the date of a person’s primary school years by how well they know their tables. Of course, most people over 50 will have instant recall of their times tables. My friend’s son has just turned 23 and doesn’t have this instant recall. I hold his primary school responsible and it’s a shame that it was once thought unnecessary to give children this vital maths building block. Hopefully, in the future people who attended primary school in the 2010s, ‘20s and beyond, will be instantly ‘carbon datable’ by their impeccable recall of the times tables. It’s a gift that every child could and should receive.

About the author

Peter Sumner is a headteacher and CEO of headstartprimary.com, which creates maths, English and assessment resources for primary schools.

Pie Corbett