UKEdMag: Drop-Zone Multiplication by @_LeonBrown

Rise to the Numeracy Challenge

New government plans are set to test every child on their times tables before they leave primary school – something sure to be classed as an unwelcome addition to the pressures and responsibilities that teachers and pupils already face in preparing for year 6 SATs. Teachers and parents may complain, but the only way to truly manage the modern obsession with testing is to adapt how education is delivered to become more friendly and efficient for both teachers and pupils.

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With the aim of the government plans to test children on their times tables up to 12×12, it doesn’t help that the assumption by many parents and those involved in the media ( and even some involved in teaching is that the only way to learn multiplication is through memorisation. This method good as a shortcut to recall common multiplications quickly, but is not ‘truly’ learning about multiplication and has a limit in real world scenarios.

In addition to this, heavily basing learning on the requirement to memorise a large number of facts puts children affected by memory related learning issues such as dyslexia at a disadvantage – with many people in this category not being diagnosed until later or after their education, if at all. It can be easy for children in this category to be labelled as not trying hard enough to remember what otherwise appears to be simple facts.

As a maths tutor and software developer, it surprises many people that I don’t know much of the times tables and I certainly haven’t memorised any of the formulas used for GCSE maths – yet, how can it be that I can use and teach these concepts without a problem? The answer is very simple – I have a different way of looking at maths that instead of relying on memorising maths facts, an emphasis is placed an understanding of maths concepts, pattern recognition, strategy formation and visualisation.

Applying this to the new government plans to test on multiplication, my alternative method to tackle this would be based on the understanding of certain number patterns and how these can be combined to form a strategy that can quickly and accurately get answers with only using a few facts. In this example, I will use what is statistically the most likely multiplication for children to get wrong, which is 6×8. The trick used to solve this is what I’ve called “the drop-zone” method, which works as follows:

  • Find the “drop-zone” by multiplying the biggest number by the closest easiest multiplication you know of.
  • Move from the “drop-zone” to the target by subtracting or adding the multiplication of the difference.

The drop-zone method is best illustrated through example:

  • We recall the fact that numbers multiplied by 10 only require a 0 to be added to them, hence 10 being an easy to use number for the drop-zone calculation; 6×10=60.
  • We identify that the difference between the target (8) and the drop-zone (10) is 8-10=-2 ; this tells us that we are -2 steps from the target.
  • We calculate the value of the two steps as 6x-2=-12.
  • Finally we combine the answers to the “calculated drop-zone” (60) with the “calculated steps to target” (-12) to get the final answer; 60-12=48.

Teaching the drop-zone method is also supported by an app that presents the concept as a parachuter landing at the drop-zone and then running towards the target – giving children an easier way to understand how the concept works as well as a consistent method to practise.

Critics of the drop-zone method will argue that it requires four steps to do the calculation when compared to simply recalling a fact when committing multiplications up to 12×12 to memory. My counter arguments to this criticism are that:

  • The drop-zone method is an ideal fit for anyone who is affected by memory related learning issues where memorising the times table isn’t an effective option.
  • Compared to learning all 144 answers of the times table up to 12×12, the drop-zone method only requires the learning of 4 steps.
  • Understanding how numbers work for the formation of strategy used in the drop-zone method provides a greater understanding of maths for use in other areas than merely committing answers to memory.
  • The drop-zone method is flexible to be adapted for making mental multiplications easier, especially for larger numbers including the 12 times table that children often struggle to calculate; with some minor adaptation, the multiplications such as the 20 times table also become as easy as the 5 times table.

As educators, we need to explore alternative strategies for numeracy to discover new performance opportunities for children who are otherwise struggling to meet the standards set by the ever growing demand for test results. Children who are already making a good effort yet failing to make progress should never be made to try even harder; it is our role as educators to find learning methods that fit their way of understanding and thinking. To say the obvious – if it’s broken, fix it!


Leon Brown @_LeonBrown is a Maths tutor, Technology Journalist and Education Content Developer in Liverpool.

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