If a week is a long time in politics, then 21 years must be an eternity. Yet I can still remember the furore when Stephen Byers – then education secretary – was interviewed on the radio about government plans to improve numeracy in school and got his calculations wrong.
No journalists have tried to trip up Damian Hinds or Nick Gibb ahead of the multiplication tables check yet… but there’s a while to go until the voluntary pilot gets underway in June and still a whole year until all schools have to administer the check in 2020. Maybe the journalists are just waiting until after the end of March?
Of course, a teacher would have used Mr Byers’s response to ‘What’s 8 × 7?’ as a learning opportunity.
“Let’s put 54 up on the board, Stephen. Does everyone agree? What’s that? Interesting. David thinks it’s 56. And Tony says it’s 52. Let’s put them all up on the board. Which answer do we think is right? Can we prove it?”
Out might come the number rods, the counters, the Unifix cubes, the Numicon Shapes.
Some children might be tempted to draw an array. Some might prefer to use their square number reasoning skills to say that eight 7s is 8 less than 64 (or 7 more than 49).
Together, they could prove that the answer is 56.
Schools – whether involved in the voluntary pilot or not – will have gone through similar situations many times as they’ve introduced multiplicative reasoning for the times tables.
And for those schools in the pilot, perhaps even more focus has been placed on the 7, 8 and 9 times tables since it became clearer that greater emphasis will be placed on them (along with the 6 and 12 times tables) when the multiplication tables check comes into force.
Developing that ability to ‘see’ and understand times tables is just one aspect of helping to build children’s knowledge and embed the facts in their long-term memory.
In order to be able to rely upon and regularly access that knowledge, children will also need to have plenty of opportunities to recall what they’ve learnt; to be able to pull the information from their long-term memory to their working memory.
This process of being able to retrieve things from the long-term memory can be hard though. One of the most helpful analogies I’ve heard is equating it to learning to drive.
That first lesson, everything’s new. You’re doing so many things and it’s hard to keep it all together: is it mirror, signal, manoeuvre or is it signal, mirror manoeuvre? Where should my hands be? When do I need to change gear? Inevitably, you stall and get frustrated. But lesson two is a little easier. And gradually, lesson by lesson, things become familiar. Your control of the clutch improves, until eventually, driving becomes fluent.
So how can we help children develop that fluent recall of times tables facts?
Paper worksheets, mental times tables quizzes, online activities, games, can all help improve that recall. This excellent article by Behaviour Buddy has some fabulous advice about how recall can work and what evidence there is to support it.
Once the recall ‘links’ are established, they should – in theory – be easier to rely upon in a multiplication tables check. Or in a live radio broadcast.
Paul Repper is the Publisher for Primary MyMaths.
MyMaths has a range of online homework activities, worksheets and games that can be used to help children practice their times tables knowledge and build their fluency. For an example, see this blog post.