Children don't need to know number facts to be good at maths

For a whole generation chanting times tables verbatim was a core part of their primary school education. While this style of teaching maths fell out of favour for a while with a more mixed approach adopted by schools now, the debate rages about how maths should be taught.

But primary school children can do well in maths, even without knowing their sums by heart, according to the latest findings in a study from the British Educational Research Association.

Academics from the Institute of Education (IOE) tested 259 Year 4 pupils (aged between 8 and 9) from well performing schools and found that none of them knew all their number facts to 20 even though their maths was above average. Number facts are the addition and subtraction combinations that equal numbers up to 20, which children are expected to know by the end of Year 3 in the national curriculum (eg 11 + 7 = 18).

For the research, if the children could answer the sum correctly in three seconds then they were assessed as knowing it. Here 61% of children knew more than half, with just 1% knowing them all.

They were then asked what strategy they had used to solve the problem.
Ten percent said they relied on their knowledge of sums on most problems but none did on all of them. This suggests that even if they got the answer quickly (in less than three seconds) they had often quickly calculated it rather than knowing it by heart. For example, a child might use their knowledge that 6+6=12 to calculate that 12-6=6.

[ See also: How to teach your child to read]


“Ignorance of number facts is not the barrier to success in mathematics it is often believed to be,” said Professor Richard Cowan, leader of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project at the IOE. “The national curriculum suggests children develop their knowledge of facts initially through counting, then by using principles until the facts are well established. It is a compromise between a traditional emphasis on knowledge of facts and a progressive emphasis on understanding principles.”

So while old-school thinking is that children must spend more time learning facts to be becoming competent in maths Professor Cowen suggest this study does not support that thinking and that it may have implications for the new curriculum being drafted.

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