046. Ban Rote Learning of Tables

I think that learning tables off by heart is rubbish. When I say this, it is usually met with general disagreement and in some cases, complete contempt. Typical responses included:

  • There is no other/better way to teach tables
  • Learning tables off by heart did me no harm
  • Call me old fashioned but…

So  I tried an experiment with a group of primary school teachers. If they thought learning tables off by heart as such a good thing, I challenged them to learn the following sentences off by heart.

Fred Davidson lives in Aaron Zion Avenue
Greg Fredson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue
Isaac Davidson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue
Fred Davidson works in Bill Davidson Avenue
Greg Fredson works in David Bill Avenue
Isaac Davidson works in Clare Fredericks Avenue


It was interesting to see how many people accepted the challenge and the responses of the teachers that tried it and failed to learn them off by heart was the following:

  • I got muddled / scrambled / confused
  • My head got exhausted
  • I had no motivation / interest to learn them
  • I expected them to be easy to learn but they weren’t
  • They weren’t important to me
  • It was frustrating
  • I’m too busy

It was also interesting that many teachers who were in disagreement with me would not do the challenge as they didn’t see the relevance of learning a load of sentences off by heart. In fact the majority of the dissenters would not even attempt to take part!

Of the ones that did, some teachers recorded ways they tried to learn the sentences.  Some said they tried looking for patterns in the sentences. Others made a story up (e.g. similar surnames became part of a family) and finally others grouped similar names together to try and find patterns, etc.

So, what was the point of learning these seemingly random sentences? Before the reveal, I’d like to compare how learning tables is very similar to having to learn those sentences off by heart.

  1. When you give children tables, many of them will experience feelings like those expressed by respondents, being muddled, confused, seeing no point, no motivation, etc.
  2. Perhaps the majority of teachers are good at learning things off by heart. However, perhaps most people are not good at learning things off by heart.
  3. The six sentences below have complete relevance to learning tables. In fact, the sentences below represent 6 number facts. They seemed meaningless to many because they have appeared in a new way. A child comes across tables initially as something new too.
  4. Every word below is also a real word and you can explain what every word means. Putting them together, however, they don’t seem to have any pattern. Likewise, every number in a tables fact is also known to a child but put them together and they don’t seem to make sense or be very interesting. The reason some of you weren’t bothered learning the sentences off is the same reason a child wouldn’t either.

Here’s how the sentences below are, in fact, tables facts.

  • Any of the names represent a number. E.g. Aaron=1, Bill=2, Clare=3 and so on. Z words represent zero.
  • Lives = Plus
  • Works = Multiplied by
  • Avenue = Equals

So to translate:

Fred Davidson lives in Aaron Zion Avenue (6 + 4 = 10)
Greg Fredson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue (7 + 6 = 13)
Isaac Davidson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue (9 + 4 = 13)
Fred Davidson works in Bill Davidson Avenue (6 x 4 = 24)
Greg Fredson works in David Bill Avenue (7 x 6 = 42)
Isaac Davidson works in Clare Fredericks Avenue (9 x 4 = 36)

As far as I would be concerned, all the responses in this discussion represented exactly how a child feels when given a list of tables to learn. Just because I represented my tables in words doesn’t mean they should have been any more difficult.

The people who looked for patterns, made relations and grouped similar sentences were all using strategies to help them learn. If you can give your pupils strategies like that, e.g. David Fredson also lives in Aaron Zion Avenue (commutative property), you’ll see the benefits straight away.

My conclusion to this is that we need to accept that teaching strategies is far more beneficial than simply learning tables off by heart. No doubt, some will still disagree and I’d be interested to see your reasons, to which I’d be glad to respond.

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