The TES has quoted maths education professor Jo Boaler as stating that the increased focus on memorising times-tables in England is “terrible”:
“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.”
Boaler is obviously alluding to some research here although it’s not clear what this is. What is clear is that she is wrong.
Knowing maths facts such as times tables is incredibly useful in mathematics. When we solve problems, we have to use our working memory which is extremely limited and can only cope with processing a few items at a time.
If we know our tables then when can simply draw on these answers from our long term memory when required. If we do not then we have to use our limited working memory to figure them out when required, leaving less processing power for the rest of the problem and causing ‘cognitive overload’; an unpleasant feeling of frustration that is far from motivating.
An example would be trying to factorise a quadratic expression; tables knowledge makes the process much easier.
The fact that Boaler never uses times tables as a maths education professor tells us something but I’m not sure it tells us much about the value of tables in solving maths problems.
You can read the cognitive load argument here.
I am sure that testing can induce anxiety but it certainly does not have to. Skilful maths teachers will communicate with their students and let them know that the tests are a low stakes part of the learning process.
Tests are an extremely effective way of helping students learn, particularly for relatively straightforward items such as multiplication tables and so, appropriately used, they should be encouraged.
We also know that how students feel about their ability – their self-concept – is related to proficiency and that it is likely that proficiency comes first ie proficiency causes increased self-concept.
With this in mind, if we want students to feel good about maths and reduce maths anxiety in the medium to long term then we need to adopt strategies that improve their ability to solve problems.
Learning multiplication tables is exactly such a strategy.