The times (tables), they are a-changing … or not, as the case may be

It is curious how emotive discussions can become when the subject is that of teaching multiplication tables in schools. Nicky Morgan, the UK Secretary of State for Education, recently announced that new online tests of children’s ability to recount their times tables up to and including 12 x 12, would be piloted this year for 3,000 11 year olds in England, with a view to rolling out the tests to all 11 year olds across the country in 2017. Predictably, perhaps, this has resulted in a flurry of polarised responses from commentators on education (note – commentators are not usually current or previous teachers), from the vehemently expressed ‘yes – traditional rote learning is an essential part of good education’ to the equally vehemently expressed ‘no – learning times tables is obsolete in a digitally connected world. For those of us who have been in education long enough to see the wheels turning several times, each time seeking to balance out or compensate for a perceived failing in the last cycle, there is nothing new in this, and the politicking and posturing can be somewhat tiresome. Is it time (no pun intended) to move beyond this?

Education is not a simple matter. No matter how attractive the concept might be to policy-makers, teaching children can never realistically be a case of inputting certain data and guaranteeing specific outcomes. Children and their circumstances are too complex, their relationships with teachers and their peers are too intricate, and nothing is absolutely for certain in every case – statistics, after all, about what works and what doesn’t in education are by their very nature generalised. In a society which values difference and individuality, we should not be surprised or irritated by the fact that people learn in many different ways, with different motivations and with different outcomes. Rather, we should embrace this uncertainty as a welcome sign of variety – and that the system has worked.

That said, we have accumulated significant amounts of wisdom about the building blocks that lead to a good basic understanding of the world, and, equally, we have learned enormous amounts – held, it must be said, largely in the form of teachers’ practical experience – about how individuals can be coaxed to understand, learn, develop and grow. Teachers help children to learn and this, fundamentally, is why teachers are so important in schools – they are the people who can respond to the needs of individuals, and they have an enormous influence on what children do and achieve. It follows that their views about the importance or otherwise of elements of the education programmes they follow really do matter, because these opinions, translated into action in the classroom, directly affect whether or not children learn them.

So – what do teachers think about learning times tables? Are times tables useful? Is learning these times tables useful? Is testing the learning of these times tables useful? For school leaders and teachers, in practice, the question of times tables is actually a non-story, because for the most part they have been quietly just getting on with doing them in schools for years. Yes, times tables are as useful now as in the past as a basic mathematical concept and part of how we perceive the world. Yes, learning them is useful – and teachers are always looking for ways to help children learn them more effectively and so that they are more meaningful for them. Yes, testing them is useful too, at least to a degree – it certainly proves that children can reproduce the times tables (although not necessarily that they have absorbed an understanding of their significance); and the rigour of learning does also focus children.

Moreover, there is an equality of access argument in the teaching, learning and testing of times tables – children in all schools, from all walks of life, should be able to have the same access to the same quality of teaching, ie teaching that will help them develop the same quality of learning. Does testing have potentially negative outcomes? Yes, it does – the time and resources spent on testing can detract from time and resources spent on learning, results can be (usually are) used for short-term political gain rather than genuinely enhancing the life chances of individual students, league tables promote competition between schools rather than collaboration … the list goes on.

But what is really important in this debate is that no-one is really listening to teachers in a systematic, comprehensive way. No-one is really listening to schools just explaining what they are doing – no-one is asking and listening with an open, non-judgemental, curious mind, free of the desire to criticise or give anecdotally-based opinions on what schools should be doing. The lack of a united teacher voice on curriculum matters is not surprising – teachers, as students, are individuals with varied experiences, and this is to be welcomed in a system which seeks to develop such individuality. The lack of any strong representative teacher voices is much more concerning. Where are the voices saying, for example, ‘we, ie your local school, does this, because we believe …and we know that it works because …’?

School leaders generally don’t speak out about what they do and why, either because they are wary about how their words and ideas will be communicated by the media, and how their constituencies will react to this (what will be the scandalous spin? what will people think?) or because they actually have no official remit to say anything, because most of what they do is prescribed from a centralised office, and if they choose to do follow their own path because it works well for the students in their school, they prefer to keep quiet about it.  Schools have grown silent because they have gradually become disempowered or fearful of reaction. When you are expected to be all things to all people, all of the time – a panacea for society’s ills, and yet the focus of its ire – it is easy to see why you would remain circumspect.

And yet we need schools to speak out, to re-establish themselves as the voices of education – schools working within wider education systems but responsive too to the needs of the individual children in their care. A nagging suspicion vexes those following the debate on times tables … a suspicion that schools are not really being trusted to do what is right – perhaps because we have left the age of authority behind, and perhaps because people don’t really understand that schools are always, always seeking to improve, and that this is not a sign of inadequacy but rather a very grown-up sign of strength. Schools are amazingly complex places, as the debate about times tables serves to illustrate: what fills national newspaper columns for a few days is a microscopic element in the daily life of a school.

Perhaps the time has come to give schools credit for this, and just allow them to get on with it.

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