The new times-table test and how it relates to music

Today the government have announced that times-tables are going to be assessed at the age of eleven through a national test.  Presumably this is a continuation of the “secondary ready” policy to ensure that all children have basic skills so they can access the secondary curriculum.  A bit like the phonics check, it is a screening process to make sure that schools are responsible for teaching times-tables.  Every school I have been to has taught multiplication tables, so there is some understandable annoyance from teachers and educationalists that the government have announced this, as it looks like they are implementing it because it is not being taught.  I doubt this is true, the reason they are testing it is to make sure that all tables up to twelve are thoroughly learned and make teachers responsible for children’s performance in the test.  As we know, just because you teach something doesn’t mean that the children have actually learned it.

Do we really need another test?  I would actually argue “yes”.  As all schools I know of are already teaching multiplication tables, no one can complain that there is any change so there should be no extra work for teachers.  As it is going to be externally marked, there is no added assessment for teachers.  It is simple and easy to understand.  If children get stressed out about it, that says a lot about the teacher making too big a deal of the testing process.  I had spelling and multiplication tests continually at school, it was just something to expect and nothing abnormal, unexpected or oppressive.  You even got a chocolate pick and mix if you got 10/10.  So why is the government calling for this national test?  My guess is they are concerned about a dangerous fallacy going around education circles that times-tables are not important and do not need to be explicitly taught.  The test will ensure tables are taught because as we all know well, what gets formally assessed gets taught.

Before we dismiss this line of thinking out of hand, we should ask if there are any good reasons why we shouldn’t teach times-tables.  The main criticism is that learning them by rote is poor pedagogy as children aren’t actually thinking about the number relationships and relying on memory; the old knowledge vs understanding argument.  There are educationalists such as Jo Boaler who argue that thinking about numbers is a much better way of understanding multiplication, especially through talking through different methods that children use to obtain an answer.  I have sympathy for this and it is always good to listen to others to think how we go about solving a problem and it is also good to confront any misconceptions at their source.  However, there is a very good argument for instant memory recall as most mathematical problems have multiple steps and if you do not know your tables by heart you are adding an extra step in your thinking process.  And as we know, the more steps you have, the more likely you are to make a mistake as it introduces an additional cognitive load.  Another argument is the ever-present one that now we have calculators why should we bother to learn multiplication facts by rote.  Isn’t this another relic from our outdated Victorian education system?  Again, cognitive load theory is a reason why instant recall is preferable to calculators but also many mathematical processes rely on multiplication relationships and concepts such as simple algebra, ratio, fractions and statistics simply do not make much sense if you do not already know your tables.  Finally, the best reason to teach them in my opinion is a bit simpler – secondary maths teachers really want the children they inherit to know them as it makes their life easier.  It’s hardly a good pedagogical reason but if we really believe in reducing teacher workload then we should take it seriously.  If secondary maths teachers have the knowledge that the children know their tables, it is one less thing that they have to worry about and those that don’t can be identified and helped right at the start of secondary school.  Maths teachers should not have to worry that their pupils do not know their tables just like English teachers should not have to worry that pupils will be unable to construct a grammatically correct sentence by the age of 11.

How does this relate to music?  I see a similar problem with learning notation and I have been guilty of making similar mistakes in the past.  When teaching piano you can learn to play through recognising the notes in relation to each other, for example when notes go in step or if they skip.  Some children work this out by numbers on their fingers which is why beginners playing all pieces with thumbs on C can result in some bad practices.  They don’t actually know their notes but have come up with their own system to relate the symbol to the sound such as thumb = C, pointy finger = D etc.  Sadly, this can actually cause problems later on when the music becomes harder or if their fingers change hand position.  One pupil I taught could play a variety of different pieces as long as thumbs were on C but did not know which note was which.  When I finally twigged that they did not really know their notes we had to more or less go back to basics and relearn material.  Sadly that child did not continue playing as a result of the frustration they encountered.  This is why I always do ten minutes of a piano lesson on basic theory using flashcards.  This has made a big difference and I encourage children to know the notes by rote rather than try to work them out.  When playing piano you have to have good hand eye coordination and, like with times-tables, we need instant recall if we are to play music fluently and to a consistent speed.  If you can instantly recall the names of all the notes on treble and bass staves then you have a much better chance of playing fluently and will find sight-reading less of a challenge.  Just like in maths you need to know your tables to be numerate, in music you need to know your notes to be musically literate.

Some music teachers will complain and say that they do teach these things, but the evidence is against us in general.  Sadly there is a large proportion of children who cannot even read treble clef by the age of 11.  This makes secondary music teachers lives much more difficult than it should.  There should be an expectation that children know their notes by the age of 11 and the government have responded to this by adding to the new KS 2 Music curriculum the expectation that staff notation will be taught.  There are music teachers, both in primary and in secondary schools who say musical literacy is not important.  We had conversations about this on my PGCE.  However, this is one of the reasons for the disastrous report into music education that I have referred to previously.  Most secondary teachers do not expect primary children to know notation but I think that they should.  You can still teach an exciting practical curriculum in primary and expect children to be musically literate just like we do the same for normal literacy.

So what practical steps can we take?  Teach notation from KS1 and practice it through practical activities for 6 years.  Teach recorders.  Teach hand bells.  Teach violins.  Teach ukuleles.  But do not expect theory will magically happen.  Theory is vitally important and it needs to be explicitly taught.  Just like all artists should know their colours, all dancers should know their steps, all mathematicians should know their tables, all musicians should know their notes.

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