As a primary school boy in the late 1950s and early 60s I learnt my times tables, along with the rest of the class, by chanting them or, in the case of one school by singing them. At my last primary school we were taught by the headmaster who used to take off a shoe and beat time. He could also hurl said shoe with venomous accuracy at anyone he felt was faltering keeping the beat going slapping his bare hand on the desk until his shoe was returned by one of us.
Certainly the man just mentioned was a bully, but my point is that we knew our numbers and I can still flash back into the relevant chant on the odd occasion when I need to make a calculation and I would suggest that, at 11, we were far better equipped that most school leavers today. Perhaps some will argue that children today don’t need that degree of numeric ability given that they all have a ‘phone in their pocket that can do calculations that we needed a slide rule and log tables to manage, but an example this morning may be relevant.
Yesterday I prepared my VAT return using a spreadsheet programme as normal, but on printing it off this morning in preparation for submitting it to HMRC I could see that it was not correct. It took less than three minutes scanning the one hundred or so entries across three columns to spot the problem; the entries were right, but the totals were wrong. For some reason, and yes it may well have been caused by something that I did, two of the columns were not including all of the entries.
How many of today’s school leavers could spot an error like that? In my working experience very few, for as children of the computer generation they would simply accept what the box, or the report that it had printed, was telling them.
Education was starting to fall apart as I left school in 1969 under the policies of Tony Crosland and when the government changed Margaret Thatcher did not take the opportunity to reverse Labour’s catastrophic error and instead she continued down that path. Today we are seemingly seeing some reversal mooted. Why? Because there were major planks of the old system that worked and people see that clearly now. I don’t advocate bully boy tactics in teaching, but making education fun works and there are many ways of doing that; singing numbers as we did in one class works well in Hong Kong for example.
Numbers, like words, are important, so let’s make sure that we teach of children well.
Disgusted of Dorcan