Thursday, 22 February 2018

Times tables - common knowledge?

As a teacher of economics I've always felt I've laboured under a double handicap.  Most people have been to school and most people from the age of five or so have and spend money, if not much, and  when they grow they  up have a budget, even if they don't call it that.

I consequence, since most people have been on the receiving end of eduction they think they know a lot, if not all there is to know, about it, and since all people operate at some level as agents in the economic system, they tend to believe they know a lot, if not all, all about that too..

So the opinions of we "experts" tend to to be regarded as having no more value than the  views of the general public. If an expert astronomer tell us that such and such a star is x light-years away we believe it without demure; if a heart surgeon tells us be need a bypass we take his or her world for it.

But if an economist says that if there is a recession and the government's income falls, the last thing it should do is cut its expenditure and thus either deepen the recession or delay recovery, the advice is spurned.  Instead Mrs Thatcher's simplistic analogies with the prudent household hold sway.  As  a result  the austerity imposed on the UK over the last eight years stamped on the modest recovery left behind by Labour and has significantly reduced the average incomes of most households (the top 1% have done OK) compared with what they would have been had that recovery continued.

Now to the question of what the young should learn, and, sadly, most people answer:  "What I was taught" even if they weren't all that successful in learning it.  So our government has decided to trial new tests for primary school children's competence in March of this year, and they are to become mandatory from 2020.

For one whose training as a teacher took place in the 1950s, when the centralised rules of the French about what should be learned and when in their schools were regarded with scorn, such an attempt to micro-manage the curriculum produces a sensation of shock-horror.

 Well, at least for once there is to be a trial.That's a minor advance.

Not that I ave any personal objection to learning tables.  They can be fun, and some children will find delight in the interesting patters that emerge, as well as pleasure from getting things right.  Others will find them a bore and some a turn-off.  Not that I have any objection to that, if it's important. I'd be inclined to encourage  pupils to learn some poetry by heart, and I wish that facility in at least one musical instrument had been on offer in my day.

But what is important varies from age to age and area to area.  My father's acid test of anyone who claimed to be educated was the ability to recite the names of the rivers of Yorkshire in clockwise order. Sadly I failed this miserably.*

What is "essential" in mathematics must surely take account of the massive advances in technology which have taken place in the last fifty years.  I just missed out on learning how to calculate square roots using an algorithm similar to long division.  If you want to have some fun (or refresh your memory if you're over 80) see here. But by the time I came along we had universal secondary eduction and secondary schools had books of Logarithms  and Other Tables so I learned how to use these along with the trigonometrical ratios for such calculations.  We were also taught how to use slide rules but I never rally caught on to that.

Nowadays even the cheapest calculator produces the answers to most arithmetical, trigonometrical and statistical operations  at the press of a button.

This does not mean that some numerical dexterity should not be learned, but the amount should be decided  by the practitioners who know what they're talking about, and not some minister or civil servant educated in what can reasonably be called the technological dark ages.

Much the same applies to many arts subjects.  Why learn  "the Kings of England in order categorical" or the capitals of the EU 28 (with luck) off by heart when you can look them up on Google?.

The purpose of education is to open minds to appreciate what a wonderful place the world  is, to excite children about at least some aspects of it, and to enable  each to experience and contribute to it to their full potential..  This is more likely to be achieved by encouraging teachers to communicate their own enthusiasms rather than by imposing dry edicts from above.

*  Earlier this week I wrote to the Guardian about this and my letter has provoked responses to show that my father was not alone.  One correspondent remembered having been taught the mnemonic SUNWAD: the following day another pointed out that this omitted the Calder, and a third came up with the delightful "Sheffield United never win at Chelsea" which gives you Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire and Calder, though it leaves out the Don


  1. I must admit that I thought that I had invented SUNWACD when studying for GCE O level in the 60s. From the same book I also knew that rhubarb was a "notable feature of the cultivation to the east of Leeds". However, my geographical knowledge was not restricted to Yorkshire. I also knew that the population of Hamburg was 1,700,000.

    1. I hope yu feel all three pieces of information have improved your quality of life no end. The "Rhubarb Triangle" still exists: I went walking round it with the local Ramblers only a couple of weeks ago. And there's a posh new pub just outside Wakefield called the Rhubarb Triangle. It's big and serves standard pub food.

  2. Why learn "the Kings of England in order categorical" or the capitals of the EU 28 (with luck) off by heart when you can look them up on Google?

    Um, because if you apply that logic to everything then children end up never learning anything (because why bother when you can just look it up on Google?) and, hence, never actually learning to learn.

    You might never need to know the Kings of England, but the ability to remember an ordered list of arbitrary items? That's a useful skill, and it isn't innate, it has to be learnt, and the Kings of England is as good a subject to practice it on as any.

    1. As I indicate in the original article I'm not against a bit of rote learning and believe that a certain amount of poetry known "off by heart" can be an enriching experience. A lot depends on what individual teachers can generate enthusiasm about. For me it would be poetry (I can still remember a chunk of Shakespeare I learnt at primary schools) for some it would be prime factors of larger numbers, for many it w3as the aliquot parts of a £ (though I'd never heard the term until I went to train as a teacher myself.) Fun and enthusiasm should be the main determinants: not drudgery and dictation from on high.

    2. But if you leave it up to individual teachers then a certain proportion of them won't bother either because it's too hard, or because they simply are incapable of generating that level of enthusiasm.

      I'm not a big fan of centrally-imposed curriculums, but there has to be some compulsion to make sure that everyone teaches at least a certain minimum set of skills.

      (Plus, the more times you try to batter a concept through a pupil's thick skull, the better than chance that it might eventually make it through, if only in fragments. If you let each teacher choose their personal favourite way to teach rote learning skills, pupils get one chance to learn it. If you say they have to do some rote learning in every subject area, the pupils get more chances to actually acquire the skill: if they don't pick it up from the times tables they might get if from the Kings, whereas if you had let the teacher who loves maths but is bored by history skip the king-learnign they wouldnt' have had that chance.)

    3. My philosophy is to move closer to "choose good teachers, pay them well, and let them get on with it."