As a conclusion to Maths Week 2011 and as an aside to this year’s Tables Tips Twitter Project, I am resurrecting an article about learning tables off by heart. This post originally appeared on Anseo.net back in January 2008. Almost 4 years later, I wonder if opinions about learning tables has changed. Read on and see what you think!
A few days ago on Education Posts, I proposed that learning tables off by heart is rubbish. My proposal was met with general disagreement and in some cases, complete contempt! I decided to prove my point by asking teachers to learn a few sentences off by heart just like children are asked to learn number sentences off by heart.
They didn’t know the significance of them, exactly like a child doesn’t know the significance of learning tables when told to do so. So here’s the sentences. If you want to take part in the challenge, don’t read on after the sentences until you’ve tried learning them 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 the Bill Davidson Building
Greg Fredson works in the David Bill Building
Isaac Davidson works in the Clare Fredericks Building
It was interesting to see how many people accepted the challenge. There were 32 responses to my challenge but only 7 actually took it on. The others used the thread to give their opinion on my hypothesis. There was a strong sway of disagreement with me (57%) and only about 22% agreed.
The general views of those who disagreed were:
- There is no other/better way to teach tables
- The sentences have no relevance to tables
- Learning tables off by heart did me no harm
- Call me old fashioned but…
- We shouldn’t spoonfeed children
Of those who attempted the challenge, only one out of seven considered it easy. The rest who found it difficult gave the following responses:
- 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 to see how 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.
Next, before the reveal, I’d like to compare how learning tables is very similar to having to learn those sentences off by heart.
- 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.
- Perhaps the majority of teachers are good at learning things off by heart, due to the Leaving Cert relying heavily on this skill. To become a teacher, you have to score very high points in the exams. However, perhaps most people are not good at learning things off by heart.
- The six sentences below have complete relevance to learning tables. In fact, the sentences below represent 6 number facts. They seemed meaningless to many of you because they have appeared in a new way. A child comes across tables initially as something new too.
- 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
- Building = Is
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 the Bill Davidson Building (6 x 4 = 24)
Greg Fredson works in the David Bill Building (7 x 6 = 42)
Isaac Davidson works in the Clare Fredericks Building (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 straightaway.
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.
Last Update: March 31, 2019