How Important are Times Tables, Really?

This article is the introduction to a series of articles on strategies for teaching times tables. Note that some people (myself included) call these “Number Facts”; the two terms are essentially interchangeable.

Do leave a comment at the bottom of the page – I’d love to hear what you think. Do you still teach times tables? Have your ideas about them changed over the years?

Download Free eBook “10 Minutes a Day: Times Tables Worksheets”

Let’s deal with the biggest question regarding the teaching of times tables/number facts: are they still important today?

Operations symbols

Cons: Why Some Consider Times Tables Unnecessary

On the negative side:

  • It is clear that knowing your times tables is not as important as it once was; calculators enable anyone to find out a times table quickly (but not instantly). In the old days, if you didn’t know a times table you couldn’t do your job in a factory or shop, a pretty serious drawback.
  • Learning times tables is challenging, and requires quite a bit of mental effort. Some students just don’t seem to “get it”, and it can take a long time to attempt it.
  • Calculator batteries don’t go flat, so don’t bother mentioning it. Everyone has a calculator within easy access, most of the time.
  • It’s 2010, for goodness sake! Times tables were needed when adding machines were expensive and slow, but not any more. Times change, and so should teaching priorities and methods.
  • There are other, more important topics for the busy teacher to devote time to. Younger teachers may not even know times tables themselves.

Pros: Why Times Tables are Essential for All Students

Now for the positive side of this debate:

  • All mathematics depends on certain foundations, including rules for the numeration system, operators, symbolic systems, and so on. Most mathematics learned in school and university requires ability to find basic times tables quickly.
  • Sure, a calculator can be used, but it is much less convenient, and much slower than a person who has committed times tables to memory. (Teaching strategy: play “unarmed combat”, in which one student has a calculator, and one uses his or her memory alone. The memory will win if tables have been sufficiently memorised. For an even more dramatic demonstration, ask a times table without warning, so students who don’t know them have to look for their calculator first!)
  • The date has nothing to do with it. No amount of technology will remove the benefit to a person of having memorised the basic times tables. Having to input data into a technological calculating device, no matter how quick, takes longer than mentally recalling the answer, and requires less brain “processing power”.
  • Times tables are not difficult, memorising them just takes time. Except for those with a specific mental disability or learning disability, anyone can successfully learn all the times tables in a few weeks. The approach favoured by experts is to teach strategies which will equip students with ways to find a times table if it hasn’t been remembered yet; specific strategies are explained in detail in other posts (eg, see 2x, 3x, 4x) on this site.
  • The discipline of learning times tables is beneficial for students. It requires focussed mental attention and attention to detail, free from distractions; these processes are essential for many important tasks. Learning times tables is effectively a form of “mental workout”.
  • Using a strategy-based approach to learning times tables reinforces mathematical processes and relationships which would simply not arise when using a calculator. For example, learning that the 5x facts can be related to multiples of 10 develops familiarity with the idea of 10 being the base for our numeration system, which will help develop numeracy.
  • Many non-experts, lay people, believe that knowing your times tables is important. Many of these people have some influence in the worlds inhabited by your students: their parents, grandparents, future employers. Teaching students times tables will hardly ever result in resistance or criticism from these people. Rather, they are overwhelmingly likely to congratulate you. I recommend that you engage their help in supporting your students in the learning of times tables.

Dealing With Sacred Cows

As in many areas of life, there are multitudes of opinions about the teaching of times tables. Some people seem to think they have a monopoly on truth which borders on a God complex. Allow me to humbly put my view on this, based on over 30 years experience as an educator.

Firstly, there isn’t one right answer about this (there hardly ever is). You may believe that learning times tables is an anachronism, a throwback to the distant past. Fine. You may believe that teachers’ and students’ time is better spent on other, presumably more important, math topics. OK, I get it. But you will have to come up with a better argument than “times have changed”. Of course they have, but 6 times 7 is still 42, and knowing that instantly is still useful. There simply is no good reason to say otherwise. You may prefer other methods for students’ finding what 6 sevens equals, but for me recalling the answer in a second or two beats other methods hands down.

Number Facts

Secondly, even if your students didn’t need to know their number facts now, they will in the future. Failing to equip them with the ability to recall number facts instantly is to handicap them in the future. If you could transport yourself through time to a future class your student is taking in which they need to recall a simple times table fact, and you saw them reach for a calculator to find the answer, what might you do differently today? I know what I would do.

Thirdly, let me speak frankly as an educator who teaches future teachers at university level. After at least 12 years of school, the majority of these students can’t remember the more challenging times tables to help themselves. They reach for their mobile phone when I ask them, and find it so difficult to cope in an exam in which calculators are not permitted. Are they happier, better adjusted? Do they know other mathematics concepts better, since their brains aren’t crowded with unnecessary times tables? Of course not. On the contrary, those who don’t know their times tables hardly know any mathematics, they are confused about most topics, and they need to go back to basics to learn what is in the primary/elementary mathematics curriculum for the second time. Only this time around, their future teaching career could depend on the result, and they are struggling to reach understanding of what they could have learned as an 8- or 9-year-old. Am I frustrated? You bet, but not with my students. My beef is with a schooling system that has sold teachers a bill of goods, that times tables are not important, and that electronic calculating technology has removed the need for mental computation ability.

Conclusion

Teaching times tables is not all that difficult, but it does require commitment and dedication. Depending on the curriculum used in your school, times tables may or may not be a priority. My recommendation is to take whatever opportunities are available to you, and set the goal for your students of knowing all their times tables by the end of Year 5, or by their 11th birthday.

Download Free eBook “10 Minutes a Day: Times Tables Worksheets”

Picture Credits
  • Operations button:  © iStockphoto.com/Ahmad Hamoudah
  • Times table grid:  © iStockphoto.com/Bart Broek

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