Whatever Happened to Times Tables?

It’s 1979. I’m 6. I’m a pupil at Bluecoat County Primary School and I’m in class K3, taught by Mrs Woodcock.

We’re reciting times tables. And it’s boring.

My fellow pupils and I recite the tables together in that bored monotone that can only be generated in a primary school classroom – a sort of maudlin chant that has only ever been captured effectively on tape by Pink Floyd.

“One two is two. Two twos are four. Three twos are six. Four twos are eight.”

The pattern is established.

“Five twos are ten. Six twos are twelve.”

It continues in its stilted way, and then, all of a sudden, it gains momentum:

“Seven twos are fourteen, eight twos are sixteen, nine twos are eighteen, ten twos are twenty!”

Phew! Then a final flourish – the more difficult bit. The icing on the cake:

“Eleven twos are twenty-two, twelve twos are twenty-four.”

It ends on a downbeat note, but it’s reassured. Twelve twos are definitely twenty-four: the end.

This is how we rolled in the seventies – learning by rote while our flares flapped around our ankles and our free milk sat in the corner getting warm and gross.

But, milk traumas aside, it worked. I know my times tables. I know them as well as I know that I’m allergic to nuts, am colour-blind and need to put on glasses in the morning before I can locate the switch on the coffee machine. They’re ingrained. No calculation is required to know that 8×9 equals 72. It’s just a fact that I know – that I’ve always known.

So why don’t my students know?

I think there’s a clue in something I mentioned above: it was boring.

In this era of short attention-spans and fast online access to information, the opportunities to become bored have shrunk by a significant degree. Classrooms are now dynamic places, housing teachers taught to engage students through a variety of innovative, fun, technological methods that vary by pace and form delivered in such a way that, we hope, will distract students from viewing the next text message they receive.

But boredom works.

We need to learn to be bored. Coping with boredom and accepting that repetitive learning sometimes requires us to be able to be bored is, in my opinion, a skill worth learning. Ask anyone who’s learning a musical instrument. Or who’s a model. Or a factory worker. Or is an extra in a film. All of these jobs involve either doing very little for long periods of time or doing the same thing again and again and again.

Could it be true that in a desperate attempt to engage learners, we have overlooked one of the most important skills of all? I’m not sure that the 1970s offered this skill by design. I’m sure it was just the way things were done. But it’s strange to think that while we think we’ve advanced a great deal in the ways in which we teach our children, we may have overlooked one of the most important learning experiences of all.

But who dares to suggest that as the way forward in securing such vital knowledge in long-term memory when the world of iPads and quizzes and apps beckons?

Go on. I dare you. In the comments. 😉

Reflect, Expect, Check, Explain

This isn’t so much a review, than a heads-up that the ubiquitous Mr Barton (of Mr Barton Maths fame) has just published his latest book, ‘Reflect, Expect, Check, Explain’.

It’s a weighty tome (is a ‘tome’ ever anything else?) running to 554 pages, and is absolutely stuffed with detailed ideas for teaching maths in the most productive ways possible.

It draws on Mr Barton’s (let’s drop the formality and call him Craig from now on) extensive collection of web content and explains how to craft lessons that maximise mathematical thinking and development in students.

It’s a book you have to be willing to work with; there are no quick-fix, photocopiable worksheets here. Indeed, such is the depth and amount of content and ideas that making use of its advice feels like taking on a high-level course in transforming your own teaching practice. This is no bad thing.

The book’s title, which is surely at the bottom of the pile for any marketing awards for memorability, summarises its main ideas. The most revelatory of these – for me – is the ‘expect’ element, which deserves a book on its own. It makes use of students’ expectations when solving problems and exploits them to maximise the effectiveness of the learning in terms of comprehension, engagement and recall.

Craig Barton always declares that his ideas are simply the methods that have worked for him and that it is up to the reader (or participant if attending one of his seminars) to make up their own minds about whether to adopt them. Certainly, having seen him demonstrate concepts such as ‘silent teacher’, I have had my doubts as to whether some of them would translate successfully to a post-16 resit course where engagement is an ever-present issue.

But that is the real selling-point of this book, and possibly one of the reasons why Craig has gained such a following; the book presents the ideas with the authority that comes from research and experience, while recognising that the teachers’ own experiences are just as valid a source of ideas and good practice. It respects the reader as a fellow professional, which is a refreshing approach and one that teachers often yearn for in their own teaching environments.

If you’re serious about improving your own teaching practice and are willing to put real effort into taking on new ideas, then this book will give you a substantial amount of material to work with. Another triumph for the unassuming Mr Barton.

‘Reflect, Expect, Check, Explain’ is published by John Catt and priced at £19 (see below for discounted link).

Reflect, Expect, Check, Explain: Sequences and behaviour to enable mathematical thinking in the classroom