“Six sixes are…” what does the tables check hope to achieve?

“Six sixes are…” Checks, balances and tests: what does the multiplication tables check hope to achieve?

The first round of the new multiplication tables check has been rolled out to schools. The online multiplication tables check (MTC) has initially been been voluntary for schools to take part – from 2020 it will be compulsory.

Heralded by the ex-OfSTED chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, as an intervention that will “make a difference”, over 7,000 pupils in almost 300 primary schools were expected to have taken part in the trial period.

Originally aimed at Year 6 pupils, the test have now been directed toward the 8 year-olds in Year 4. The check consists of 25 questions with children using laptops, computers or tablets to complete the task. Pupils will have six seconds to answer each question in the test.

At a cost of over £5 million, the (8 x 8 =) 64 million dollar question is of course – why bother?

As a teacher, teacher educator, academic and parent I know that multiplication tables are one of those education topics that really gets people’s blood boiling. Many parents I have spoken to about tables simply fail to understand why they are not taught in the ‘old fashioned’ rote way.

Indeed, when the conversation turns to tables, often I am recounted with a wonderfully syncopated rendition of (other tables are available)…

“Two sixes are twelve, three sixes are eighteen, four sixes are twenty-four, five sixes are thirty,  six sixes are thirty-six …”

However, when I am feeling particularly mischievous I often throw a curve ball into this display of supposed mathematical dexterity by asking,  “How many times can you divide thirty six by six?”

The outcome of this question usually follows a simple pattern:

  1. Stop
  2. Think
  3. Work the answer out

And of course, step three is the vital difference between regurgitating and understanding.

The government test—sorry, check—focuses front and centre upon memory and not application. Why six seconds to answer? Why not three, or indeed thirty three?

It seems to me that the multiplication check illustrates powerfully the divide between teachers and many academics, and policy makers and their political masters.

So why is the Government doing this?

I suspect that evidence from polling companies’ data suggests times-tables are a vote winner. Like cutting taxes, there appears to be a school of thought that any government able to convince the electorate of a return to ‘proper teaching’—in this case epitomised through rote learning times tables—will earn a bump in the polls.

Which is all well and good if winning votes is your primary task.

Teachers however are not worried about votes, but are concerned with learning. And this is where we return to the test—sorry check. Putting aside the debate about the over-reliance upon testing in England’s schools for one minute, these tests seems completely pointless as a learning tool. The focus on recounting information, in a time period that rewards memorisation and punishes application, seems nonsensical.

So, if they are useless to aid learning one can only assume that they will be used for some other purpose – say inspection?

The Department for Education have stressed these tests will not be used to assess schools. There is no pass mark, nor expected standard threshold, nor will results be published at school level. So again the question seems to be what are they for?

Writing in Schools Week Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, labelled the check as a ‘complete waste of time’.

I agree with Brook but would go further. They are not just a waste of time, but detrimental to children’s learning. They perpetuate negative mathematics identities held by many people. They increase children’s stress. They increase teachers’ workload.

Please don’t just take my word for this – Professor Jo Boaler has similar concerns.

And there is one other fundamental point to end on…

They ignore the fact that times tables are so cool.

Understanding the interrelationships between multiplication and division is but one of a myriad of benefits of understanding, not regurgitating, one’s tables. Reducing multiplication to a time-poor activity located in memory, and regurgitation evidenced by a test that appears to have no learning application whatsoever, is another instance of policy makers missing the point.

The check is another aspect of performative education culture which, in a headlong dash to evidence ‘quality’, has the complete opposite effect it hoped to achieve.

Rather than support and inform children and teachers alike about learning, they instead inform no one in particular about how good our young people are at remembering.

What this is supposed to achieve is, unfortunately, beyond me.

Now then, 7 x 7 is… erm …


Andrew Clapham


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