Why kids need to rote learn times tables

Plugging the holes ... Parents are having to teach or outsource their children basic arithmetic.
Plugging the holes ... Parents are having to teach or outsource their children basic arithmetic. Photo: Getty

Rote learning is out of vogue. That was the message I took home from a recent maths information night at my children's primary school. And it cemented my concerns about the current approach to teaching some basic arithmetic.

The new Kindergarten to Year 6 NSW maths syllabus for the Australian curriculum - optional this year - becomes compulsory in 2015. Its emphasis is on depth of learning; for students to truly grasp mathematical concepts rather than applying them without understanding.

I've already noticed this move away from rote learning. Instead of memorising basic addition (say, 5+8=13), children are now taught to use strategies like 'counting on' and 'bridge to ten' (solving the question of 5+8 now involves two steps:  8+2=10; 10+3=13). But there's a casualty in this swing towards 'deep learning': primary schoolers no longer memorise times tables. Times tables are so passé that they've even acquired a new name:  they're now called multiplication facts.

Like other Gen X-ers, I spent many primary school mornings chanting numbers in unison with my classmates ("three ones are three; threes twos are six…"). It was hardly inspiring. But I went on to study the highest level of maths at school, did a couple of semesters of university maths, and tutored junior and senior maths for years.

Times tables are a fundamental building block of arithmetic. When kids move beyond basic multiplication to more advanced topics, such as short division (what's 4872 divided by 6?) and reducing fractions (what's 3/8 of 56?), they're going to struggle if they can't automatically identify a product and its factors. It's what Sal Khan, founder of the not for profit online school the Khan Academy, refers to as "Swiss cheese learning" – gaps in knowledge that keep building because of things students have previously missed.  [Source:  Salman Khan, The One World Schoolhouse:  Education Reimagined, 2012, Hachette Australia]

Yet, as a Sydney primary school teacher (who wished to remain unnamed) commented, "Although the expectation is that students will know their times tables by Year 5, many don't. Drilling multiplication facts with students and using worksheets for practice is now frowned upon and seen as lazy teaching."

Clearly, there's no purpose in endless memorisation without an understanding of underlying concepts. But rote learning has its place. It's akin to an exasperated parent occasionally answering a child's "But why do I have to?" with a curt "Because I told you so". Although rote learning times tables isn't fun or exciting, it works.

I can think of many things I'd rather do than practice multiplication facts with my Year 4 daughter. That's why I send her to school. But earlier this year, I realised she was struggling with foundation multiplication. So I worked with her at home to memorise time tables – using bribery to ensure compliance – until she was confident. I'm not the only parent supplementing the school curriculum.

I was shocked when, some time ago, I discovered that many parents at our local primary school send their children for extra maths coaching on precious weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. These aren't kids with learning disabilities. Their parents aren't seeking to turn their darlings into future Maths Olympiad participants. These are families that simply want to plug the holes in their kids' maths knowledge. And as proficiency increases, mums and dads have noticed their kids developing a more positive attitude towards maths.

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Similarly, my home-schooling project with my daughter brought an unexpected result: not only has she nailed her times tables, but her motivation and confidence in her maths prowess have skyrocketed.

That's why it's so important for primary schoolers to become proficient at numeracy from an early age. Perception of ability is crucial, and a child's belief that 'I'm not good at Maths' can soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Sal Khan (drawing on the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck) points out, "Most people are held back not by their innate ability, but by their mindset." [Source:  https://www.khanacademy.org/youcanlearnanything]

This is particularly true for females - at least until the boys-are-better-than-girls-at-maths myth is completely dispelled.  Indeed, research shows that girls with the same level of maths ability as boys still rate their maths skills as lower.  [Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender:  The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, 2010, Allen & Unwin, pp 48-49]

Primary school maths lessons have discarded the 'drill and practice' method in favour of making 'rich connections'. But drilling and practicing – especially when it comes to times tables – should not be seen as dirty words. Rote learning basic arithmetic frees up mental space so that kids can move onto deeper problem solving. Parents of primary school children shouldn't have to resort to outsourcing – or insourcing – to ensure their sons and daughters are competent in basic maths.  The fact that many of us do indicates that the current approach isn't working.

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