Times Tables Aren’t Really as Important As You Think (Part 1)

Key Stage 2 Maths Concentrate Far Too Much on Times Tables

I would like you to tutor my daughter. She’s struggling with her Maths lessons; she’s currently at Primary School and enjoys school but hates maths.  We’ve really tried to help her learn her times tables but nothing seems to click.  She’s getting disheartened and nothing the teacher says seems to be working…

This message and so many others like it are regularly hitting my inbox or are topics of conversation when I meet pupils and their parents for the first time.  Obviously, this is a perfectly normal line of conversation but on the third line down the dreaded times tables is mentioned.  The holy grail of becoming better at Maths, learning to be really good at remembering 144 Maths Facts about numbers.  Not only that but you must be really quick at remembering them.

Now before I start being able to recall Times Tables facts can be useful to some degree for certain younger pupils and it’s certainly useful if you are planning to do a job involving a lot of mental arithmetic when you are older.  However, my slightly controversial opinion is that being able to recall times tables facts does not improve you mathematically whatsoever.  I used the word recall very carefully there though.

Who Can Benefit From Learning Their Times Tables?

All children clearly can learn something from learning their Times Tables to some degree.  Being able to derive what 4 x 7 is obviously beneficial to them if questions are being asked based on this…

“But you just said that Times Tables do not improve them mathematically?”  

Well, the key word here is to derive, not recall.

The only pupils who really benefit from extended times tables practice in my opinion are the very able pupils who have not been introduced to all of the times tables.  

An example of this is a very strong learner in Year 2 who may have only been introduced to the 2, 5 and 10 times tables.  If they are overachieving and enjoy Maths, I will spend a decent chunk of the lesson learning say the 3 or 4 times tables and beyond with them.  This rarely will require a lot of lesson time because as I mentioned before, this pupil is already showing high subject knowledge so learning his times tables likely will not be an uphill battle (more on that later).

Another situation is a pupil who cannot skip count at all and has no way of deriving these numbers.  For these pupils, learning their Times Tables is important but it needs to be done using methods to develop a pupil’s number sense, such as spending more time skip-counting with fingers, chunking numbers, practising with different hands-on activities and generally spending time understanding “how it all works”.  Otherwise, it can backfire as we’ll see…so why aren’t Times Tables as important as you might think?

1. Pupils Think That Knowing Their Times Tables Will Suddenly Make Them Good at Maths…Unfortunately, it Doesn’t.

I remember tutoring a pupil who was really struggling with Maths.  She really hated it.  To overcome this she memorised her times tables and her response times were impressive.  When I asked her what 7 x 6 was she very rapidly and proudly responded 42.  I was impressed, I said, “That’s quicker than me!”  Her Mom, quite rightly proud, said she spent hours and hours reciting these Times Tables and now she knew them so well.  It wasn’t until later in the lesson that I realised where the problem was.

Times Tables Abacus

I then asked her what 12 divided by 2 was.  She went blank and looked confused.  So I asked her how many 2’s there are in 12.  The blank look turned very quickly to anxiety.  Realising her discomfort I said let’s skip count using our fingers together.  She looked a bit teary at this point and responded “I don’t know what you mean?”.  I hastily changed the subject to something she felt comfortable with and the next lesson started the process of skip counting from scratch.  This was one of my worst memories as a tutor and a prime example of the anxiety Maths can cause if not dealt with correctly.

Whilst this example is extreme, I have had so many similar cases I started to realise something was really, really wrong with how Primary School Maths in the U.K. is being taught.

2. Times Tables Make Easy Profits For Companies

A few years ago, I decided to learn how to develop and code a video game for mobile and tablets.  It became a hobby of mine and sick to death of seeing the Times Tables Rockstars, I created Times Tables Crusaders.  I was going to be rich beyond my wildest dreams!  It had great little characters, it had a sort of play-tag bop mechanic and unlike most Times Tables games it first and foremost was a video game but with Times Tables in it.  It required not just times tables knowledge but also reflexes and video game skills.  It was kind of successful in that it got more than 10,000 downloads on Google Play and about 1000 on the App Store but I decided to remove it.  

I would like to say it was purely because of moral reasons around learners not just learning Times Tables but doing actual Maths; however, if I am honest I didn’t have a business plan, and it was making me no money whilst draining hours of my time each week.  

Other companies are far more business savvy though.  The market is flooded with adverts like this.  “Tired of nagging your kids to do Maths, try our new Times Tables game.  They’ll become Maths Wizards (more like Zombies) and you can get your washing up done, they’ll be hooked.  Only £x a year/month.  Your child will be able to recite their Times Tables or your money back.”

It takes about 1000 lines of code to insert a Times Tables element into a game and you can turn 100,000 potential Mathematicians into mindless human calculators who want to get a new hat for their character by incessantly typing in a Times Table they already know.

So next time you buy them, that Times Tables App from the App Store.  Save yourself some money and just buy them a fidget or something from the toy store.  They are normally cheaper and they’ll probably get more use out of one of them.  And yes there are more reasons to come but that’s for another day…

Picture of James Ashton (Mathemy-Mindset)

James Ashton (Mathemy-Mindset)

The creator of Mathemy Mindset Tutoring Company. Specialising in Maths and English Tution with a focus on Mental Wealth and Pupils who struggle in mainstream schools. If you would like more help with Maths, Homeschooling, Mental Health and Self Improvement contact me on: contact@mathemy-mindset.com

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