Bear with me for a moment, but I’d argue that the way Americans have traditionally learned math can be likened to cooking a Betty Crocker cake. I learned math as a set of steps to take—rules and facts to be memorized—a recipe to follow. I had no idea why, when I divided fractions, I had to “invert and multiply,” or how the lattice method of multiplication worked (I still think it’s magic). My experience with math as a young student (along with substantial current research) has lead me to believe it’s time to do away with timed tests and times tables.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Betty Crocker cake. Cheap, quick and easy to make, everyone should have a box of cake mix and a tub of frosting sitting in their pantry “just in case.” What makes Betty Crocker great is that almost anyone can bake a cake as long as they follow the directions. There’s no expectation that you understand the chemistry behind the ingredients. All you need to do is read and follow the directions on the box. By the way, I’ll have you know, I make a mean boxed cake.
Just like following a recipe doesn’t make you a chef (chefs think flexibly with ingredients because they understand food), memorizing mathematical facts like multiplication tables, and being able to spout them off in rapid succession, doesn’t make you a mathematician (or even mean you’re “good” at math). This is part of the argument presented by Dr. Jo Boaler, author and Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford in her article, Fluency Without Fear. According to her research, “Mathematics facts are important but the memorization of math facts through times table repetition, practice and timed testing is unnecessary and damaging” (Boaler, 2015).
Timed tests are the cause of unnecessary anxiety for many young students, and can lead to feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Students who can’t pass timed tests may develop a sense that they are “not good at math,” which is incredibly unfortunate. When students take timed tests on times tables (or other facts), they are not truly being assessed on their ability to perform mathematical calculations—they’re being assessed on their ability to quickly dump out memorized information (Boaler, 2015).
Some of you may be thinking, if a student can memorize their math facts, isn’t that a good thing? Yes! After all, aren’t we worried about students developing mathematical fluency? Memorizing basic math facts is great, but it should be developed through meaningful practice, not simple flash card memorization. According to Boaler, “The best way to develop fluency with numbers is to develop number sense and to work with numbers in different ways, not to blindly memorize without number sense” (2015). The goal is to have students develop numeracy, an ability to think flexibly about and work with numbers.
Please, if you have a voice in education, read Dr. Boaler’s article and consider eliminating timed tests and memorizing of times tables. It’s bad for students, and it will not produce increased assessment scores, or lead to students understanding math at a deeper level. I have committed myself to using some of the lessons Dr. Boaler provides in her book, Mindset Mathematics: Visualizing and Investigating Big Ideas, Grade 4 during some of my flex time this year (there are books available for different grade levels). We need to stop the Betty Crokerization of math in our schools. It’s time to do away with timed tests and times tables.