Why we believe that learning times tables is important

A debate rages about whether it is still relevant to learn times tables by heart. It is often argued that this is old-fashioned and useless in the age of the calculator or smartphone, and causes anxiety.

We believe, on the contrary, that learning times tables is an indispensable step towards a deeper understanding of mathematics.

The purpose of memorising times tables isn’t to be able to chant them out loud. The point is to internalise elementary number facts which are essential to make further progress in mathematics. It is only after mastering the rules of arithmetic and acquiring a deep familiarity with them that one can move on to more advanced tasks, such as fractions, or simultaneous equations. Children who fail to clear the first hurdle in mathematics can rapidly find themselves left behind. This can have a profound and sometimes lifelong effect on their confidence in, and attitudes towards, maths.

At all levels of mathematics, one needs to acquire a good knowledge of examples in order to understand the organisational principles which underpin these examples. Times tables play such a role for the operations of basic arithmetic. They illustrate the rule of commutativity (that multiplication can be done in any order) the distributivity of multiplication (that multiplication can be broken up into parts), and so on. Through familiarity with times tables, children can start to spot patterns and gain confidence in the laws of arithmetic.

Why not dispense with times tables altogether and only teach the general principles, as some people would advocate?

Well, consider, learning to drive a car. The principles of driving are perfectly simple: turn the wheel to steer, brake and accelerate with the pedals. Yet it still takes many hours of practice to become a proficient driver. It is only after the key skills have become second nature that the driver’s mind is free to think about the other important tasks, such as safely navigating through traffic, or finding their way to their destination. Mathematics is not that different, and it requires many hours of practice to fully internalise the rules of arithmetic.

At the other extreme, it is not enough just to memorise number facts without trying to reach a deeper understanding of their structure.

For this, teachers and classical teaching methods are indispensable, but technology and out-of-school learning can help.

By design, the Edplus algorithm generates questions in tandem with a child’s understanding of mathematical concepts: for example, that division is the inverse of multiplication. To reinforce this, it also generates hints to explain these concepts and increase the child’s awareness of them.

The times tables may not seem directly useful to everybody in their daily lives, any more than the scaffolding used to build a house is required to live in it.

Nevertheless, learning them by heart is an important step towards attaining fluency in the rules of arithmetic.

It is for this reason that we at Edplus are offering the times tables component of our app to everybody, for free, for ever.