Ministers of Education sometimes get over-involved in the details

It seems to me that Ministers of Education sometimes get over-involved in the details of what happens in the classroom rather than appreciating the context and contribution of the many factors involved in education. Although I wrote this in 2014, sadly it still applies today, with National tests for times table facts for 10-year olds set for 2020.

‘A former Schools Minister says.’

Some comments on an article from 18/02/2014

A former Schools Minister says:

‘Children may be falling behind their Chinese counterparts in maths because of a failure to learn times tables by heart.’

It may be a tad more complicated than that. Sometimes ‘times tables’ are categorised as ‘basic facts’ which begs a definition and/or explanation as to what makes a ‘basic fact’ ‘basic’. A basic fact, it could be argued, is one that one really, really needs to know in order to work out other facts (thus introducing a conceptual component to learning).

A former Schools Minister says:

‘This includes the times tables up to 12 by the age of nine.’

It is doubtful that a strong case could be made for including the 12 times tables as basic facts in 2014 and, if you could make that argument, then why not make it for 13 times tables for those of us who remember the ‘baker’s dozen’?

A former Schools Minister says:

‘Believe it or not (the ‘not’ implies that there is an element of choice for us, dear reader), these are controversial proposals amongst many in the educational establishment.’

Before I try to analyse these comments in more depth, I should outline my overview on learning facts:

I do think children and adults have to be able to access maths ‘facts’. Access can be taught and it has side benefits. Access is about teaching strategies that are mathematically developmental. Maths is an intellectual subject. It should be treated as such. In the USA ‘number facts’ are sometimes called ‘number combinations’ in recognition of children’s use of strategies, using facts they do know to work out facts they don’t know. This is conceptual learning and extends the pupils’ abilities to access other facts such as the 15 times tables. It removes a sense of helplessness, because it gives learners a way to work out the ‘facts’ that they do not have in their memories.

OK. Let’s take that look at this collection of (three) sayings. There are many factors involved here. For example, the times table facts are unchanged and thus parents recognise them and can even practise them with their children. This certainly will benefit many parents even if it doesn’t benefit their children. And you can buy CDs with great tunes that have lyrics that sound remarkably like times table facts. Ah! Those happy school runs with those CDs playing. ‘It worked for me’ is the mantra.

But what if the child fails to master this task? There is a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that many may not. Add in the pressure to retrieve facts at speed and the success rate may drop even lower.

But what if the child does master the task? Does this automatically predict future success in maths? Or does it give an illusion of learning?

These ‘facts’ are part of a concept, that is, the concept of multiplication, which in turn is linked to the concept of addition and extends to the concept of division. Merely learning the words to the song may not develop those concepts.

It’s not that the proposal is controversial. It is that it is unrealistic and not helpful for many children, even those who do succeed in the task.

I researched an extremely efficacious method for rote learning back in the mid-80s. However, despite its power to deliver retention, it didn’t work for everyone. That is such a downer in education that ‘nothing works for everyone’.


My informal research of many hundreds of teachers is that a noticeable number of children begin to give up on maths at age 7 years. A factor in this de-motivation is likely to be a fear of failure and one of the early sources of failure is an over-reliance on rote learning.

A former Schools Minister says:

“Children are falling behind in maths because of ‘strong resistance’ to traditional teaching methods in the classroom.”

I suspect that teachers, as the default position, are likely to use the methods that they were taught and that their teachers, in turn, did much the same. Deviations from the ‘traditional’ are likely to be rare.

A former Schools Minister says:

“Pupils struggle to understand basic mathematical concepts following a decline in the use of mental arithmetic and rote learning at a young age.”

Maybe mental arithmetic is not the best entry point for defining a pedagogy. Daniel Kahneman, in his best-selling book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ turns to mental arithmetic as early as page 20 to illustrate how we think when faced with the problem, 17 x 24. It is not as simple as the Minister thinks. (There is a possibility that she was using her thinking system 1 here).

Mental arithmetic has been part of the National Numeracy Strategy since the late 1990s, so it is hard to claim a decline in its use.

It’s complicated. Again.

Two of the key functions that are required for mental arithmetic are a good short-term memory in order to remember the question and a good working memory in order to carry out the steps to solve the question. These memories are not given out equally to all children. Those with weaker memories will need differentiation if mental arithmetic is to be of any conceptual benefit and certainly of any positive influence on motivation.

A former Schools Minister says:

“With a lot of practice, children not only become fluent and confident in calculation they also develop an understanding of the concepts underlying those calculations as familiar patterns emerge.”

Patterns do not always emerge for all children. Should those patterns emerge incorrectly, then those misconceptions will stay with the child. It’s a dangerous assumption.

If practice worked for everyone, I would be a sub 3-hour marathon runner.

And, this is an expectation and expectations that cannot be realised tend to demotivate.

A former Schools Minister says:

“Large numbers of schools rejected the (traditional?) approach (algorithms/formulas?) in favour of ‘chunking’.”

Arithmetic is about chunking. The place value system is about chunking (into tens, hundreds, thousands and so forth). Traditional long multiplication is about chunking. It’s not the process of chunking, it’s the chunks you choose to use. And for that you need good number sense and operation sense.

There is now a large body of evidence about what works in maths education. It is not all sourced from that mythical ‘educational establishment’, but from psychologists, researchers and educators from around the world, including the Far East.

PS. A former Schools Minister mentioned Shanghai:

It just might be that there is a significant cultural difference in attitudes to maths in Shanghai than in England, but it is a fascinating place to visit.

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