Numbers game: do today's children really need to learn their times tables?

Photo: Shuttertstock
Photo: Shuttertstock 

With stressful classroom timed tests, soul-destroying rhyming songs and ongoing pressure from both parents and teachers, just how important is it for kids to master the times tables? Have we been placing too much emphasis on the importance of automatic recall?

Educational Consultant and mathematics expert, Rob Vingerhoets believes so.

"We still hold onto the way we taught it in the past, which was clearly rubbish," says Mr Vingerhoets. "I think it's a tradition. We like to hold onto these. It's like trying to hold onto handwriting longer, like give it up a bit will you? It's 2018.

"You should be able to work out a problem in your head. The fact that the only way to do that is by knowing your tables— there's actually no evidence of that," explains Vingerhoets. "I think that one of the things that teachers and parents are sucked in by is that you can't be any good at maths if you're no good at your tables. Well that's just not proven. There's no research that connects strength of tables to strength in all performance in mathematics."

On the other hand, Gennady Podlubny, founder of Ezy Math Tutoring, thinks there is a connection. "Times tables are a foundation of arithmetic which is the foundation of mathematics in general," he says .

"They could get by for a while just by comprehending multiplication without knowing their times tables, but this is not sustainable and each new topic would be unnecessarily difficult to learn."

And when asked whether students need to answer times tables quickly, he says, "That depends on how well they want to perform. The quicker they can do times tables the better they will perform and the quicker they will be able to learn new concepts."

But does our school system cater for students who can't recite times tables rapidly?

Jenny Atkinson, founder of Sparks Education Australia, has over 30 years of teaching experience and now runs in-school transition to high school workshops for Year 6 children and their parents.

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"Not knowing times tables definitely impacts children whilst they are in our current school system with the way maths is taught. We want children to reach their potential, so we need to equip them to navigate the school system as it exists today," she says.

"Not having quick recall slows them down in testing situations. In high school, this can be even more evident. I have seen children who are quick to catch on to maths concepts who do not score as well as you might expect in tests, partly because they are spending more time on the computation of times tables... and do not have sufficient time left to complete the test."

Mr Vingerhoets believes that it is useless to learn times tables robotically though. Educators need to address the way students experiment with numbers and refrain from teaching old-fashioned methods.

"If I know six sevens are 42, but have no picture in my head about 42—I don't see it as an array, I don't see it as six weeks, I don't see it as double 21 or half of 84—I see nothing," he explains.

"I see nothing in my head except the line from the tables chart that I've memorised that says six sevens are 42. That's all I've done and I've said it quicker than you.

"But you're sitting there working out, 'okay if I break the seven into fives and twos, so if I make that six times five — which I can do because that's a fives pattern and that's easy— well that's 30. And then six twos, that's just a double so that's 12. I'll put the 30 and the 12 together and I get 42'. Well there's no way you're beating me in speed, but you just beat me ends up in mathematics.

"You used the distributive property, you used common sense, you used great mental computation. Your maths is vastly superior to mine. I just regurgitated a fact that had absolutely no meaning whatsoever to me."

But the fast student often stays standing while the other sits down in a mathematics game. The fast student gets praised while the other is considered slow at mathematics because it took too long to get to an answer.

"It's all wrong—the way we've been going," says Mr Vingerhoets. "It's not about how fast you are, it's about how well and how efficiently you put it together."

Brent Hughes, primary school teacher and numeracy educator at Matific agrees that children remembering something and children understanding something are two vastly different things.

"If you want your children to be better at maths, ditch the flash cards and instead play games where mathematical skills are being applied to problems that need solving.

"I can remember children I've taught who told me that eight times nine was 72, but that there was no such thing as 13 times one. This is a classic example of rote learning not extending to understanding.

"When understanding is the primary focus, all children benefit; when remembering is the primary focus, some children benefit," explains Mr Hughes.

"Just know your tens, your fives and your twos. You can get to every number fact from there," Mr Vingerhoets says. "If a student can break that seven times table into fives and twos, they're strong in mathematics, and they'll be fine—better than any kid who can just regurgitate the facts."

Ms Atkinson is positive about the future for students who are still challenged. "Once children leave school, I don't feel they would be negatively impacted if they were to not know their times tables," she explains. "These days we all carry around a calculator in our pocket—our phone. So while they may be a little slower computing mentally—say, at the shops—they can easily use technology to fill the gap."