On “Lack of Confidence” and Times Tables

Here’s a line I often hear from the parents of younger children, and from far too many teachers:

{Child} knows their tables really, but he/she just lacks confidence and must believe in themselves. 

Lack of confidence is something I’ve heard about a lot since I became a full time tutor, and I always almost respond in the same way:

Ask him when his birthday is.

I’ve taught kids who have to stop and think about that one, but they’re definitely a minority. For most children, when they’re asked something that they really truly know, there’s no confidence issue at all – if they furrow their brow at all, it’s to wonder why you’re even asking them something so obvious.

So why don’t they answer the same way when mummy asks them for three times seven? Why the pauses, why the silly mistakes? Because they don’t know it well enough. And, almost always, that’s a matter of practice.

Here’s how most people teach times tables, as far as I can tell:

Parent: What’s 4 x 7?
Child: Um. Er. 28?
Parent: Good! What’s 8×8?
Child. Um… . I think I’ve forgotten – can you help me on this one?
Parent: It’s 64.
Child: Oh, yes! I knew that one.

And on they go, both parent and child allowing themselves to believe that only some strange psychological blip prevented perfect recall of the eight times table. It’s very possible to do this for months without getting anywhere at all.

By contrast, the right way to teach tables is based on a simple principle:
The child should not be getting questions wrong.

Here’s the sort of conversation I’d have in a times tables session:

Tutor: What’s 4×4?
Child: Um –
Tutor: It’s 16. What’s 4×4?
Child: 16.
Tutor: Good. What’s 4×4?
Child 16.
Tutor: What’s 4×2? (deliberately an easy one)
Child: 8
Tutor: Good. What’s 4×4? 
Child: 16
Tutor: What’s 16?
Child: Four times four.
Tutor: Good. Okay, 4 x 5 is 20. What’s 4×5?
Child: 20
Tutor: Good. What’s 4×4?
Child: 16

At the end of 30 minutes of that, the pupil will know their four-times-table perfectly for the next week or so. You’ll need to revisit it with reasonable regularity over the next six months, but if you do, he or she will have made a friend for life. A quick tables session fits perfectly into a car journey, and once they’ve mastered all seven of the tricky tables (3s, 4s, 6s, 7s, 8s, 9s, and 12s) you can relax – there’s nothing more to do but maintain perfection.

Learning the multiplication tables, properly and thoroughly, pays off in a thousand ways – five years later, when their GCSE teachers inform them that 4y multiplied by 7y is 28y², they’ll have 100% of their brain free to concentrate on mastering the algebra, while their classmates are losing the teacher’s thread in the second-and-a-half it takes them to figure out where the 28 came from.

Some children are shy and introspective – others are born as bold as brass. But any child who feels confident about their birthday can feel confident about their multiplication tables.