The next war

The BBC reports that education secretary Nicky Morgan “wants England to be in the top five in the world for English and maths by 2020. It is currently 23rd.” They quote her:

Returning us to our rightful place will be a symbol of our success. To achieve this, we will launch a war on illiteracy and innumeracy.

So, I’m thinking about wars that Britain has prosecuted over the past half century or so, often with the goal of “returning us to our rightful place”. Suez. Falkland Islands. Bosnia. Iraq. Yemen. Cyprus. Kenya. Afghanistan. Northern Ireland. Not all disasters, but not an unbroken record of glory either. Not really a set of memories you want to activate if you want your audience to think “overwhelming success” rather than, say “useless drain on national resources”, “antiquated racist ideology”, or “undermining democracy and human rights”.

Putting aside the absurd-sounding ambition for England to be among the top 5 for English, (I’ll just guess this wording reflects the slightly vague British awareness that foreigners tend to speak Foreignish, and so might have literacy skills to be tested that aren’t literally “English”) the battle plan for maths all comes down to tables:

All children in England will need to know up to their 12 times table when they leave primary school…

She also wants the country ranked as top of the European league tables by the same year if the Conservative Party win the general election.

I’m genuinely puzzled by the obsession with times tables. Even when I was in school, in the pre-calculator era, I would say the focus on times tables seemed excessive. Now, where there seems to be genuinely no practical point to it, it is becoming even more central. (I can’t judge to what extent the increase is temporal, and to what extent a difference between the US and UK.) Speaking as someone who earns a living as a mathematician and statistician, who loved mental calculation as a child, and who enjoys storing heteroclite lists of facts in his head, I can say that the utility of knowing, at the 50-millisecond-recall level, that 7×8=56 has not been very high in my life — probably somewhere between the utility of knowing all the words to Mr Tamborine Man and knowing large portions of the periodic table by heart. I’d be hard pressed to think of any way my life would have been worse had I thought that 7×8 was 54, or if I had needed to work out 3×6 on my fingers. There are calculating devices everywhere these days.

Not that learning paper algorithms for multiplication and division is useless, as examples of algorithmic thinking — but they spend YEARS practicing them! — but even then, the benefit of having the multiplication tables in your head rather than, say, written down on a table, seems to me minimal. Can’t they think of anything better to do with years of our childrens’ lives? It depends on what you mean by “they”. Educators can. But politicians can’t. All they can remember from their education are the times tables that were beaten into their heads. Never hurt me. Built character. Perhaps it would be better to have all primary school children memorise the European league tables.

It’s no wonder that most people think numbers are just things that make you numb…

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