Mathematics education uncovered and recovered

Just another story

It was exactly 100 days before the GCSE maths exam when I first met one of my students. According to her school, she was predicted to get a D and was currently working at a D/E grade. Having a reasonable knowledge of the syllabus, she could tackle most questions without much difficulty. However, although being able to identify which calculations to do, she hardly knew any of her times tables. Any multiplication took her very long as she was trying to work out the answer by repeated addition, so the non-calculator paper seemed impossible to complete.

One would say that there was no way to learn times tables in 100 days, given that she had failed to do that in the previous seven years, but I had a trick up my sleeve. Instead of focusing on memorising the multiplication answers that apparently were her weak spot, I printed out a compact version of times tables and allowed her to use them whenever she needed. Every time the question required knowledge of 7 x 6, she would just look it up rather than try to retrieve the answer from memory. Free from the constant fear of forgetting the multiplication facts, the girl did very well: she worked quickly, enjoyed the challenge and solved more problems than ever before.

After a few weeks of successful practice, she started to rely on that piece of paper less and less as the answers seemed to get stored in her memory effortlessly. By the start of her exams, she knew by heart most of the times tables and was able to work out the rest quickly. She got a C.

Despite being repeatedly told how bad her maths was based on the results of times tables tests, the girl was not put off and did not stop learning maths. All she needed is a relief from the stress of times tables memorisation, so the story has a happy end for her. But I can imagine how many children give up on maths altogether once they fail to satisfy the requirement of learning the times tables. As long as the memorisation hurdle is seen as absolutely necessary to overcome, thousands of children who find it hard will stop there and never move on.