Is there a place for rote learning?

One of my abiding memories of primary school was chanting my Multiplication tables out loud in class with the rest of my classmates, and if I didn’t get them right having to do it again on my own! I am sure most parents have memories of learning their times tables in school and largely this will be by rote. On reflection, this did make me learn these facts faster but mainly through the motivation of fear of humiliation if I didn’t know them. So, once I could recite them did that then help me to be a better mathematician? Well the answer to that was yes and no. When faced with a multiplication question I could answer it by applying my recall of the multiplication facts but my understanding of what the calculation meant was not secure, i.e. I didn’t understand what 6 x 3 = 18 actually meant. Therefore, if I was asked a problem solving question such as: ‘I have 3 bags with 6 apples in each, how many apples have I got?’ I could not relate that to the multiplication fact I had learnt.

After the Plowden Report (Central Advisory Council for Education (England) 1967) this practice of rote was mostly discontinued in English schools, although did remain a method people would revert to based on their own experiences. Changes to the National Curriculum that came into effect in September 2014 require that by the end of Year 4 (age 9) children know all the multiplication facts up to 12 × 12 (Department for Education, 2013). The non-statutory guidance advises that children are introduced to tables, and that they practise to recall facts and become fluent, but offers no suggestions for teachers, parents, or the pupils themselves, as to how this might be achieved.

By memorising facts it can help children develop an increased confidence in mathematics and help them to respond more quickly to questions but this does not mean that they will be able to apply their knowledge to reasoning and problem solving tasks.

In conclusion, through my many years of teaching I have found that it is important for children to rote learn their tables, although I have now reverted to singing rather than chanting them with the use of some fun YouTube videos. Learning facts as rote certainly doesn’t need to be as boring or as intimidating as my own experience. The learning to recall these facts needs to be done alongside a demonstration with manipulatives and drawings of arrays to show the children what the sums mean and how they look as a visual representation. This allows them when they are asked to apply their multiplication knowledge to be more confident and able to do so accurately.

Samantha Dadge
Curriculum Leader for Junior School, Year 2 Teacher, Joint Maths Coordinator