No film set of a 1950’s primary school classroom would be complete without the serried ranks of neatly dressed children chanting times tables aloud at their wooden desks.
Since those days, learning through repetition has fallen in and out of vogue. That’s why it’s so interesting to witness the recent resurgence in support for rote learning, backed by high-profile figures from the world of politics and education alike.
One voice that speaks out in favour of rote learning in maths is Professor Barbara Oakley, whose New York Times OpEd article reignites the debate by encouraging repetition-based learning in order to secure a foundation in maths.
Professor Oakley certainly has a point when she says that for children to aspire to a STEM career they need to be able to do more than just build models of volcanoes. They need to understand the language of science, engineering and technology – which is mathematics.
Mastering the language of any subject takes hard work and dedication. And there are clearly some cognitive benefits in being able to rapidly recall basic mathematical facts, such as times tables and number bonds. Indeed it is now established that our working memories can only actively deal with four objects at a time; the rest we need to remember and store in our longer term memory.
Perhaps rote practice is simply the price students must pay for their mathematical development.
We must ensure, however, that rote practice never undermines students’ understanding of mathematical concepts. You can learn patterns off by heart, but it’s only by exploring, probing and trying them out that you will fully understand a concept – and that significantly reduces the need for memorisation.
Take, for instance, the lightbulb moment when a child realises that a x b is exactly the same as b x a. It’s a huge leap in their understanding, and one that cuts the task of learning 144 multiplication facts in half.
Any pupil would be heartened by mathematician Eugenia Cheng’s brilliant explanation of how the only two multiplication facts she memorised were 6 x 7 and 7 x 8. The rest she learnt either as a consequence of commutativity (the a x b = b x a property), and visualising numbers and sounds.
In her article, Professor Oakley encourages parents to embed maths practice in their child’s learning, even if the child finds it painful – rather like an athlete enduring the agony of intensive training to stay at the top of their game.
Yet pain should never be part of learning maths.
Too many people already suffer from maths anxiety, a damaging condition which inhibits sufferers from attempting mathematical problem solving in real life as well as academic situations. So there’s even more reason why we should be aiming to foster an understanding, appreciation and even a love for maths.
It is when children are allowed to play with numbers, discover connections and immerse themselves in the beauty of mathematics that they remember the facts with ease.
Let’s think for a moment about the child who reels off the names of the players in their favourite football team. They haven’t spent hours holed up in their bedroom staring at lists, repeating the names and chanting them aloud.
Learning the players’ names is a by-product of supporting the team and following their fortunes from one match to the next. Doing this, the child becomes so immersed in the sport and so acquainted with their team that they don’t need to memorise the names – they know them already.
Perhaps the aim of all maths teachers should be to help pupils develop the same passion for numbers that they have for Manchester United. Then there would be no further need for rote learning.
Whatever our views on the merits and otherwise of rote learning and its place in the teaching of maths, our goal should be to give children the opportunity to experiment with numbers and discover the beauty in their patterns. When we achieve this, we take the pain out of learning the basics, and make understanding maths an enjoyable pursuit.
Dr Junaid Mubeen, director of education at Whizz Education, holds a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University, a master’s degree in Education from Harvard, and is also a Countdown series champion.