‘Disastrous’ focus on memorising times tables doesn’t add up, argues top Stanford maths expert

Giving children tests on their times tables is creating “huge damage”, a leading educationalist said today.

Jo Boaler, professor of maths education at Stanford University, told a conference in London this morning that the increased focus on memorising times tables was “terrible”.

Professor Boaler said: “I have never memorised my times tables. I still have not memorised my times tables. It has never held me back, even though I work with maths every day.

“It is not terrible to remember maths facts; what is terrible is sending kids away to memorise them and giving them tests on them which will set up this maths anxiety.”

She added that although some children were fine with timed tests, others were not. But she said the message of timed tests was that being able to memorise things quickly was the same thing as being good at maths – which it was not.

Speaking to TES, Professor Boaler said: “What we know now is that when you give things to kids like a timed multiplication test, about a third of them develop anxiety. For those kids the working memory which holds maths facts is blocked and they can’t access it.

“Governments saying everybody has to memorise their times tables to 12 times 12 is absolutely disastrous. We will be setting up nations of maths-anxious kids – we are doing that now.

“Some kids aren’t fast memorisers,” she said, “and they decide from an early age that they can’t do maths because of the timed maths tests. Other kids may be OK but see maths as a shallow subject which is about recall of facts and disengage. So [these cause] huge damage. The US is moving away from them. The UK is moving into them.”

The need for children to memorise an increasing number of times tables was one of the changes to the primary maths curriculum made by the coalition government, which was introduced in September 2014.

Under the previous national numeracy strategy guidance, children were expected to learn their tables up to 10 x 10 by the end of Year 4, when they are 9. Now children are expected to learn tables up to 12 x 12 during the same period.

In a letter to teachers from Shanghai who visited the UK last year to share their maths teaching methods, schools minister Nick Gibb said: “I believe very strongly that every primary school pupil should know all their tables by heart with instant recall by the end of Year 4 at the latest.” He added that some teachers were now introducing times tables tests at the start of each lesson, “which is a helpful step forward”.

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