News: Mathematical Drilling – Useful or Harmful?

US Education Professor warns that drilling without understanding is harmful

It makes for great political rhetoric in pressurising schools and teachers to ensure all pupils know their times tables by the time they are 10 or 11, but the continued emphasis of rote memorisation is encouraging the persistence of damaging classroom practices, claims Professor Jo Boaler, in her joint working research paper, “Fluency Without Fear: Research Evidence on the Best Ways to Learn Math Facts”.

Updated at the end of January 2015, the paper argues, “Mathematics facts are important but the memorisation of maths facts through times table repetition, practice and timed testing is unnecessary and damaging”, resulting in “maths anxious and disaffected students.”

Calling upon research on Number Sense, and how the brain makes sense of mathematical facts, Professor Boaler writes, “As students realise they cannot perform well on timed tests they start to develop anxiety and their mathematical confidence erodes. The blocking of the working memory and associated anxiety particularly occurs among higher achieving students and girls.”

Comparing to other subjects – namely becoming a competent English/Literacy student – the report argues, “No English student would say or think that learning about English is about the fast memorisation and fast recall of words. This is because we learn words by using them in many different situations – talking, reading, and writing. English teachers do not give students hundreds of words to memorize and then test them under timed conditions.” Written in a USA context, there is no attention to the Phonics test in England, which is about fast memorisation and recall of sounds tested to children at the age of 5 or 6.

Helpfully, the report does highlight activities to develop number facts and number sense. One such is a teaching strategy called ‘number talks’, developed by Ruth Parker and Kathy Richardson. This short teaching activity involves posing an abstract maths problem (such as 18 x 5) and asking students to solve the problem mentally. The teacher collects the different methods and looks at why they work. For example a teacher may pose 18 x 5 and find that students solve the problem in these different ways:

Other practical activities highlighted illustrate how to support pupils in building a secure mathematical knowledge in addition and multiplication, but concludes stating that memorisation and timed testing stand in the way of number sense, giving students the impression that sense making is not important.

The full report is freely available to read by clicking here.


 Editors Note: The original report was written for an American English audience, with changes made in this article for British English readers.

 Read David Bowman’s response to this working paper here.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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