Fast Maths is ruining it for everyone.

7 x 8. Apparently that’s the hardest sum in the traditional multiplication tables. Recall stifles, hesitation creeps in, and anxiety is (anxiously?) waiting in line. It’s too far from the friendly fives and not near enough to the tender tens. It lies patiently in the wilderness between. Waiting. Watching…

Leading up to it isn’t so bad, but on the spot with no build-up… well I’m surprised it hasn’t been the subject of a Stephen King TV movie.

6 x 7? Ha! I just did it again. Whilst you’re still thinking about it, checking your answer because it doesn’t sit so nicely in your brain (I’ll give you a clue. It’s NOT 42), we’ll get right to the point. Fast maths is shitty. Yes, I just swore, and yes, I messed with your mind when I told you 6 x 7 isn’t 42. You may well have re-read the sum just to be sure, and I’ve probably annoyed you. But for a moment you were possibly in that panicky unsure frame of mind we so often find out little budding mathematicians in every day.

I suspect we’ve all been there ourselves, just passively enjoying a lesson, when suddenly you’re bolt upright “uh oh, he’s asking random questions to people, don’tpickmedon’tpickmedon’tpickme…” followed inevitably by the rabbit in the headlights moment when you’re asked what x is, or eleventeen subtract four… did he say eleventeen? That can’t be ri…”Come on boy hurry up, we haven’t got all day”.

I hated maths at school. I mean REALLY hated it. I hated the pressure of those moments, and I hated that nothing ever made sense in GCSE, A Level, or during my degree. Yet somehow I carried on, persisting because I knew procedural steps would lead to the answer, and maths would lead to some kind of good job (apparently). Don’t mess with the steps. I never understood them, and I never understood why they worked. I’m not sure I cared either. It was only in my early twenties that it really all clicked with me, despite getting away with it all the time beforehand. Finally maths made complete sense.

I won’t lie, I read a LOT of maths stuff now, and I still often find myself re-reading a page several times until it clicks. But the difference now is that I refuse to accept something until I understand where it comes from or why it works. I’ve never been fast at it. Even now. Even with the most understanding I’ve ever had, right at this moment, I would probably get it wrong if you put me on the spot with ten seconds to find the answer. Tick tock tick tock tick tock you forgot to carry the one tick tock tick tock. More pressure more mistakes.

Don’t time me and I’ll kick your ass at maths. Well, most likely not. However I’ll get it right and I’ll feel comfortable, and I won’t feel like a fraud. The maths teacher who teaches teachers to teach maths (as my Year 8 students take such pride in telling me), but who can’t rush through a calculation in a few seconds to wow the crowds.

“Are you not entertained?”

No I’m not, you brainwashed Meerkat. I feel like my biggest strength as a teacher is a kind of (imagined) special ability to think ‘like they do’ when a student gets stuck. Because I was that student. But no-one took the time to help me. Probably because I was getting the answers right, so who cares if I didn’t know what was going on under the surface. And so I’ve developed a real issue with this ridiculous emphasis on speedy maths. Why? Why the hell do I need to do it at your pace?

I’ll do it as I see fit, and I’ll do it correctly. Children and adults like puzzles. Do you know what the most appealing thing about a puzzle is? The thinking. I like thinking. You’re robbing my thinking when you shove a timer up my ass. And we’re killing our own subject when we force students to work under pointless pressure just so that we can push on with the lesson. “Oh God, no-one gets it, I’ll pick the student who I KNOW can do this quickly so we can just move on”. No. Lots will “get it”, they’re just thinking about it. Or perhaps they’ve stopped thinking about it because they’re so used to you pushing on in a panic. Or maybe they’ve decided they’re not the maths “type” because they can’t do calculations as fast as they do on Countdown, or in the adverts for Brain Train, or like the Vedic Mathemagicians (yes, it is magic and trickery).

Either way, LOOK WHAT YOU DID!

You made someone hate maths a little more. If you want fast maths, get a calculator out. That’s what they’re for. Does ability necessitate speed? Nonsense. Fast maths just perpetuates myths and breeds maths phobia. Yes, that’s a thing. I frequently tell my students that answering first doesn’t make me like you.

The media this week have jumped on the fact that teacher training recruitment numbers are down this year from the year before. And numbers last year were below target. Guess what? One of the biggest barriers to potentially great teachers joining the profession is the ridiculous QTS maths test, which gives students just 18 seconds to solve each maths problem. 3 strikes and you’re out for two years. (It’s ok though, everyone who’s “out” just sits waiting, playing brain train alone and learning Vedic Maths). Another potential teacher bites the dust. Think for a moment how absolutely stupid that is. The logic being that a primary teacher who can’t solve a maths problem in 18 seconds, (but possibly could in 20 … oh let’s be OUTRAGEOUS… a minute) is not fit to teach eight year olds how to be awesome.

Even Jo Boaler points out that the BEST MATHEMATICIANS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE are not fast at maths. They are slower than an asthmatic tortoise with a hernia. Good job they didn’t try to be teachers though. Lucky for us, even if they did, that trusty QTS test would have weeded them out. Phew. The last thing we need in this profession is subject experts.

So whenever you wonder why students get maths anxiety, or parents joyfully declare they were ‘worse at maths than your dad, and he’s TERRIBLE, just like you are!’, think about how we might be contributing, just a little… or maybe a lot.

8 thoughts on “Fast Maths is ruining it for everyone.”

1. What I remember best is looking at the next chapter in the book (we had books then !) and thinking “I’m never going to understand this stuff”. But I always looked.

2. Do you have an example of the QTS maths test to show ?

3. Good point Howard, I’ve added an example to the post. It’s completely auditory, as is the real thing.

4. Well I failed then !!!
By the time I get to the actual question I have forgotten the info.

• Anna says:

You get a pen and paper so you can write info down as you go. I found it trivial but, like the article, I do question whether it is a hoop that we really need all our teachers to jump through.

5. Katherine Barker says:

Spelling bees do not a novelist make, but I see they’ve snuck over the Atlantic to the UK.
What I hate is when I’m teaching something (basic algebra, anyone?) from first principles and there’s always some show-off who insists their dad (sorry – it’s always a dad) has shown them a quicker way and they’re not going backwards. (Interestingly, the truly bright are always fascinated to go into the method behind the algorithms they’ve learned: the not-so-bright stick determinedly to said algorithms)

• Agreed. Tricks have their place, but deep understanding and appreciation of how they work must come first. I just think we’re excluding so many with a pointless emphasis on speed rather than accuracy. And perhaps this emphasis has inadvertently promoted tricks for fast answers that neglect deep understanding