# 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?

## 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.

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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[related-posts]

Nina RileyApril 28, 2011 at 6:23 AMI think it is good for children to learn times table as it gives them a sense of achievement. The problem is many teachers and parents feel that the only method of learning them is the rote method, and this is wrong. If they make learning times tables fun, then the children will enjoy learning their times tables. They can use games, on-line games, charts, traditional worksheets and times tables tricks.

Peter PriceApril 28, 2011 at 6:30 AMI agree, Nina. My focus is always on helping students to make sense of the math they are learning, rather than focusing on “fun” on its own. Thanks for the comment.

Howie MartinezJuly 23, 2012 at 8:47 PMHi Peter,

I enjoyed reading your article and agree with many of the points you make.

As a teaching assistant in a Primary school I have witnessed, first hand, the difficulty some children have learning, what in my opinion, is one of the basic building blocks of mathematical literacy. Also, I’m currently writing my degree dissertation on this subject and would welcome and opportunity to email you about this privately. Would that be possible?

Many thanks

H.

Peter PriceJuly 24, 2012 at 1:34 PMHi Howie

Thanks for the comment! I agree with you totally: knowing times tables or basic arithmetic facts is an essential foundation for virtually all mathematics learning which comes after it.

I’d be happy to communicate off-site about your dissertation – email is on its way.

Peter

BecSeptember 21, 2013 at 5:23 PMI don’t work as a teacher but work with the financial aspects of a company and I don’t come across a requirement that neatly falls into a multiplication fact. We are not dealing with 7 x 12, etc. and I would never rely on my multiplication knowledge to work out a quote. Would you add up in your head 7 x $45,689.57c or would you put that into a calculator or spreadsheet to make sure you are correct? I am not sure how rote learning the multiplication facts relates to the working world…. however, I suppose it is required when they are teaching maths in school. It seems to be a platform for addition. I have a child resistant to learning it by rote. He thinks I’m insane for expecting him to remember this when he can just easily grab his iphone, calculator or spreadsheet. He has the foundation knowledge – he just relies on the calculator for the answer. Why is it a better answer if you have done the sum in your head?

Peter PriceSeptember 21, 2013 at 9:41 PMHi Bec, thanks for the comment.

I appreciate the perspective you have brought to the discussion, working in a place where math is needed, but is mostly done with a calculator or spreadsheet. That is the world our children will work in too, except that if anything there will be even more digital technology available to do the grunt work for them.

However, there will still be a need for people who can think mathematically, and that thinking will be built on foundations, including understanding of place value and fractions, and having memorized arithmetic tables. No-one is likely to calculate $45,689.57 x 7 in their head; but a numerate person would be able to estimate the answer to the nearest thousand, could think of ways to check the answer, could easily multiply the result by 100 if needed, etc., etc.

I separate rote learning from memorization, and recommend teaching strategies to think about numbers, rather than just trying to memorize by repetition. The thinking involved can not only help figure out unknown tables, but also add to the student’s understanding of the math itself.

AdamDecember 16, 2013 at 6:04 AMHi I am 26 and part of the so called GCSE generation.

The school that I went to was not brilliant but I achieved good grades despite that. I am now finding myself having to relearn my times tables in an attempt to improve my mental maths. I work in the medical field and compared to my colleagues, my arithmetic is very weak.

This really hit home when I went for an accounting job at a top 4 London firm. I needed to pass a numerical reasoning test and was pitted against some of the most intelligent young minds I have ever encountered. Needless to say mental maths with a stumbling block. I scored in the bottom 25 percentile.

I need to master mental maths … starting with multiplication.

Peter PriceDecember 16, 2013 at 4:04 PMHi Adam,

Thanks for the comment. What a shame that your school didn’t prepare you for mental maths at this level! Sadly, I think this scenario is far too common nowadays. We have calculators in every classroom above a certain age, and unless the mental foundations are in place already, this can only help to make modern students lazy and ignorant of the basics.

We have produced a worksheets series aimed at UK Year 5-6 students, which covers not only the times tables in all operations, but also mental maths, fractions and percentages. If you’re interested, have a look in our store.

This would be useful practice for you to brush up on your mental maths. As an adult you’d speed through a lot of it, but overall I can just about guarantee that if you stick at it and practice a few a night, your mental maths would definitely improve.

Do let me know if you’d like more information, or if you have any questions.

peter@professorpetesclassroom.com