Learning Times Tables. What’s the point?

I remember when I was growing up, one reasons for learning times tables was: ‘You won’t be able to walk around with a calculator in your pocket!’. Little did we know that since 2007 and the invention of the smartphone, we can! In fact, most of us do.

So, is that’s settled then? Aside from the potential embarrassment of whipping out your phone for a simple calculation (we’ve all been there), is there still any point memorising times tables? Not so fast!

There are many reasons why learning times tables is still incredibly valuable for children. In fact, I would argue, it is highly important for future mathematics success.

Cognitive Overload

There’s a theory in education called Cognitive Load Theory. It basically boils down to the fact that our brain can only hold a few items at once in our working memory. If we try to hold too much in there, we get cognitive overload. This can look like confusion, a racing mind, frustration, or even just shutting down.

When this happens, learning can no longer take place, and that’s bad news. So, Cognitive Load Theory is a set of instructional strategies developed for teachers to combat this problem.

But what does this have to do with timetables and homeschoolers? Keep reading…

Proponents of Cognitive Load Theory argue that when we process new information, we rely on both on working memory and or long-term memory.

For example, when you read the word ‘car’ you don’t just see a set of squiggles and shapes; you see letters that you recognise (C, A, R). You know the sounds those letters represent, the word those sounds make and what that word means.

All those things are stored in your long-term memory. They’re automatic. That is why you don’t get cognitive overload when you’re trying to read the word ‘car’, even though it involves processing a lot of information all at once. (Side note, this is why learning to read is hard, and takes practise!) (Another side note, that’s why it’s great to have a knowledge rich curriculum).

So, to help free up your working memory to figure out new information, the best thing you can do is automate as many things as possible.

Learning Times Tables Frees Up Working Memory

This is where times tables come in.

As children progress in mathematics, it becomes more and more complex. If your child is learning a new process, you want all their working memory to be available to focus on that new learning.

For example, if a child is learning the method of long multiplication, they may be presented with this problem:

127

  54 x

This calculation will be a lot easier if the child knows their 4 and 5 times tables. Instead of spending lots of working memory trying to figure out 5 x 7, if the process is automatic, your child will be able to focus on the new method they’re learning. Even pulling out a calculator cannot replace the automatic recall of times tables.

There will be a lot less frustration, confusion and tears. That sounds like a win-win to me!

This effect is heightened as the math becomes even more complex and more needs to be held in working memory.

Learning Times Tables Helps With Future Maths Success

We get it! Times tables are hard. Some children find remembering times tables facts harder than other children. That’s just the way it is.

However, don’t take this as a heavy burden. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it will make a difference. But it’s also a very clear, and simple way that you can really help your child enjoy math more.

So, whip out that times tables chart and get started!

More about Cognitive Load Theory:

One of the key principles of Cognitive Load Theory is that memory retention is strengthened through practise and review. This means that it’s important to regularly revisit and review the information you have learned in order to solidify it in your memory. 

Cognitive Load Theory in Action – the Book | Ollie Lovell

This book is written by a teacher for teachers, however there’s lots of useful takeaways for homeschoolers about how learning occurs. You can access the first 20 pages free by signing up to Ollie’s newsletter. However, trust me, you’ll want to read the rest!

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