Darren Hoyland - Blog

Skoolz shuld teach good maffs, not bad maffs.

I heard on the news this morning that the government seem to be pushing all kids to know their times tables by the time they're aged 11.

On one hand: great! Nobody can argue with that, surely? Being able to instantly retrieve the answer to a given pair of numbers on-demand will no doubt come in are handy in every persons grown-up life and will shave valuable seconds off the time it takes for them to reach into their pocket, pull out their mobile phone and load the numbers into the calculator app.

But... on the other hand, it's a stupid idea. A politician's quick-fix solution to a problem that doesn't exist for the sake of a sound-bite for the voting public to lap up without thinking too hard about it.

The reason I'm against this seemingly benign suggestion is that for a long time, I thought I hated mathematics. I was good at it, to a certain extent, but my problem was with arithmetic (you know, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division). What I didn't realise at the time was that my actual problem was with mental arithmetic.

I have a form of dyslexia. Well, that's what they told me, but I think they liked to lump all of these "special learning disabilities" into a single group. In actual fact, it's got nothing to do with letters or spelling at all. It's not even a barrier to learning for me - I managed to get a PhD in neuroscience so it can't be all that bad. Never the less, I do find some things challenging and it generally manifests itself as an especially short short term memory.

This has occasionally led to a few... um... idiosyncrasies. For example, I love a good argument... sorry, I mean debate, but more often that not, I end up peppering the conversation with inappropriate comments, usually controversial, just so I don't forget my point when it comes to my turn to speak.

What's this got to do with numeracy? Well, because of the lack of memory, I can't hold numbers in my head for very long. This becomes an issue when, for example, I'm asked to multiply 26 by 7. First you multiple 6 by 7 which is 42 (I checked that with a calculator!). Then you move on to multiplying 20 by 7. So I'd times 7 by 2 and then add a zero, which is 140 and oh bugger, I forgot what the first answer was. So I do the first part again while trying to sing the answer to the second part in my head so I don't forget it and usually this works. Now I use a pen and paper to write things down, or, of course, a computer, but back then I was new to all of this. In any case, all of this slows me down, so in an exam situation, I'd still be on question one, while they're all on question four. You know that time at the end of exams for checking your answers? I never got that.

So surely memorising times-tables parrot-fashion would be ideal for me so I don't have to work it out? Well, no.

Despite many years of my parents and teachers trying to force them into me, they just didn't stick. I could be played as many "Up to Ten with the Mr Men" songs as you like, but to this day I struggle. As an aside, I heard that the CIA have recently begin looking into using this as one of their enhanced interrogation techniques.

What this, and my previous issues with multiplication, contributed to is a fear of maths. For me, I wasn't diagnosed until I was in the third year of my BSc, so that's a long time to harbour a grudge.

When I was at school, there was a lot of pressure to not use calculators for fear that the children's brains would atrophy or something. Instead, everything had to be done by hand. Calculators were banned from most exams, although this might have in part been down to the flashier calculators being able to store formulae. (But that leads me onto another issue - Why should we have to remember formulae? Name me one instance in real life when your employer would demand that you be able to recite a formula? Well, maybe my postdoc supervisor might have, but he was a spiteful arsehole.)

Fair enough, do it by hand once, so we could learn how it worked, but then stop. There's no need to keep doing it by hand. Move on to something more interesting - something applied. Let the kids see what it can be used for, rather than forcing them to learn some abstract concept that most will never use again once they leave the school gates. This TED talk by Conrad Wolfram from 2010 sums it up much better than I ever could. Although he does call it "math" not "maths", which I find as annoying as no doubt any Americans that end up reading this do.

Anyway, I was so happy when I left school and could choose my own A-levels and that I would never be forced to do maths again. I was so convinced that I hated it that it prevented me from following my gut-feeling about going into computery type stuff and programming. Instead, I opted for the sciences.

I spent the best part of twenty years in the wrong field before finding my way back to what I wanted to do all along. I ended up a programmer, but I had to go the long way around. Turns out that I love maths! My current job is all about maths: Logic, algebra, set theory, a bit of 3D trigonometry a couple of jobs back, all highly enjoyable stuff. But not arithmetic. Arithmetic is involved, sure. Can't get far without adding and all that, but I leave that kind of thing to the computer.

Maths is not what I thought it was and I place the blame for that squarely on the way that it was taught in school. We don't need to know our times tables off by heart. Classroom time is limited, but a child's attention span is far more limited. Neither should be wasted on something as pointless as this when that same time could be spent focussing on the fun of mathematics. Yes, that's right, fun. Logic, puzzles, learning how governments can fleece the general public with dodgy statistics, making robot brains! Come on, if we use that time to spark an interest in maths, the kids will learn the rest by themselves. And with any luck, it won't take them twenty years to do it.

Did you watch that TED talk by Conrad Wolfram? Seriously, go watch it.

Darren Hoyland, Sunday 03 January, 2016
Tags: education, maths, dyslexia