I am back at school.

That is to say the kitchen turns into a wee classroom on Friday afternoons so I can help our Puppychild out with her maths.

She's a bright kid, and yesterday we happily converted fractions to decimals and percentages.  She can happily add and subtract and is quick enough to learn.

One thing I have discovered though is that she is crap at her multiplication tables.  Ask her to multiply two simple numbers together and she stares up at the ceiling with a glazed look in her eyes, the fingers quietly tick off each other and she mouths the numbers until eventually she comes up with the answer.  I asked her about this and she said they had done multiplication tables some time ago but hadn't paid that much attention to them.

I remember quite a lot of things about my first day at school.

I remember walking there with my mother [I was five] and the huge grey walls that were built around the place.  I swear there were rolls of barbed wire on top of those walls but they were too high for me to see.  There was a laurel hedge behind the wall and to this day the smell of laurel brings back memories of incarceration].  We went through the enormous black gates and I was given a gentle shove in the direction of the door.  I was on my own.

The first thing I discovered was that the school was run by a strange breed of creatures who were completely black from head to toe with cross little faces peering at me from over a white bib thing.  They were really fucking terrifying and I was later to discover that they were called nuns.  I think that was the start of the decline of my religious fervour?

One of the lasting memories of that first day was walking along a vast corridor that had huge pipes running along the side [that was my first introduction to the concept of central heating though I didn't realise it at the time].  As I walked the vast echoey corridors all I could hear was this weird sing-song chant coming from behind every door I passed.  I thought it might be some religious thing, but I was later to learn that this was multiplication tables.  Sure enough as the next two years passed, I went through that multiplication tables ritual myself on a daily basis – chanting out the tables time and time again.  There was no getting away from them.  When we weren't chanting them we were being tested on them and woe betide any poor kid who couldn't give the answer to seven multiplied by six within five milliseconds.

I presume they taught us other things as well but I don't remember any of them.  The only thing I remember learning in that school was tables.  Two years later I was removed from that hell-hole of a convent school, with its freakish inhabitants [that gave me nightmares for years after] and went to a decent primary school.

Sixty years on I can still whack out those tables.  Multiplication is a doddle, though I do confess I am getting mentally slower with age so it now would take be about ten milliseconds to give an answer.

They don't seem to give much attention to mental arithmetic these days.  Give a kid in a shop a euro for a seventy cent purchase and they have to get the cash register or a calculator to work out I'm owed thirty cents.  Ask them how much five of those seventy cent items would cost and they are totally flummoxed.  You might as well as them to explain relativity or the principles of nuclear fission.

I see now our illustrious gubmint wants all kids to have iPads from the age of five on.  What a brilliant fucking idea.  As if the modern kid doesn't spend enough time peering at screens?  And why bother learning the basics of arithmetic when your trusty iPad will instantly give you the answer?  That's all very well if you are permanently chained to your iPad and it's permanently switched on, and even then I swear I could give an answer while they are typing in the question.

I agree that kids carry far too much to school [our Puppychild's case looks like it's packed for a five week holiday and weighs half a ton] and an iPad would mean they could dispense with all those heavy books, but there is a heavy price to pay.

Rote learning may be an unpopular method these days and kids are encouraged to think and discover their own solutions [how touchy feely is that?] but they overlook a simple fact.  To build a knowledge of maths you need good solid foundations.

And there is nothing more fundamental that tables.


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Turning the tables — 18 Comments

  1. I also had to learn my multiplication tables at school,it maybe one of the few things I remember from my time spent there. After more than 50 years since i left school, I still wake every morning thinking thank fuck todays not a school day. I hated every second of it.

    • Indeed, I love Mondays now.  Not only do I have no homework that I have forgotten to do but the place is quieter too.  From Junior Infants up to Sixth Year I can't recall one pleasant memory.

  2. I'm in favour of the little ones memorizing the multiplication tables. In my ancient time we had to do Mental Artihmetic – using our fingers to calculated drew a rap on the knuckles with a 12-inch wooden ruler. We memorized up to the 12-times table (i.e. 12 X 12 = 144, which then was called a gross i.e. grocers bought fresh eggs by the gross and sold them by the dozen and half-dozen.) If we had to multiply 435 by 895 we could do it with pencils on jotters.

    iPads for chizzlers aged 5 and 6 upwards? After the revolution I'll make sure all Ministry of Education upper echelon civil servants are sacked. Same goes for child psychologists. 

    • Just for the laugh I told Puppychild all about the old currency.  She stopped moaning then about decimals!  I didn't even bother mentioning distances, volume or weights!

      • An Irish mile was longer than a standard British mile. "A wee bit up the road" given as a friendly piece of advice to puzzled English tourists could mean an Irish mile or two or ten. The old Irish currency required a different sort of arithmetical calculation, but the designs on the coins had more artistic class than the current euro and cent. Our grandchildren are culturally deprived. Bring back the mental arithmetic and the manual cash registers with their loud metallic rings.

  3. I too had to learn multiplication by the chanting method. It didn't work. 50 years later I still take an eternity to work it out when needed, despite the fact that I became an engineer. Imperial and metric systems are second nature and I can mentally convert between the two, be it length, volume or anything else. I know how to find the centre of a circle or work out its circumference, or use any measuring tool known to man. But I can't multiply, and don't get me started on long division. All I have learned came after leaving school. It was a shit heap full of little bullies and I don't miss it.

  4. Spot on, Grandad.  I never learned my times-tables properly and have always struggled with figures as a result.  I think the trouble is, they were "introduced" to me by explaining how they "worked" (i.e. "four fours are sixteen" refers to four times the number four), which might well have helped the more natural mathematicians amongst my classmates, but it resulted in me (a highly non-mathematical type), trying to "work out" the answer in my head, rather than just learning the words.  Perhaps if I'd just been told to learn the words like I learned the words of the Lord's Payer or the National Anthem (both of which I found easy, as I'm a "words," not a "numbers" person), I'd now be able to quote them automatically and, with the benefit of years of needing to use them in various situations, would also understand how they "worked," too!

    • I don't normally agree with learning things by rote but tables are the exception.  Once you have 'em, you have 'em for life.  These days it's all about kids discovering things for themselves which is grand and dandy but you still need the foundations.  I would go so fa as to say tat learning off the tables is as important as learning how to count.

  5. Wow, that takes me back, I'd forgotten about the metal pipes.

    Convent educated all the way from 5 until I went to college those nuns probably marked me for life BUT at least I too can multiply……well I can do 6 times 7, but for some reason 7 times 6 is a bit dodgy?

  6. A young Jewish boy was failing math class. In desperation his mother ask the Rabbi what they could do. He quietly told her that the best school was the Catholic school just down the street. She reluctantly enrolled her son and he soon started getting straight A's on oll of his math assignments. Curious, his mother ask him why he was doing so much better. Her son told her as soon as I walk in to school and saw the guy nailed to the plus sign, I know they took math seriously.


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