Turning The Tables

Jayne Kearney finds a way to steer her daughter through the mysteries of multiplication.

When I was training to become a teacher, our class was presented with two ways to motivate our future students: extrinsically and intrinsically.

Extrinsic motivation is when a child will do something in order to receive something tangible, like a sticker or a prize. It’s regarded by some as a necessary evil. Intrinsic motivation is the holy grail of education: kids learning something for no reason other than the pure joy of learning it. As a student, I nodded sagely at the superiority of intrinsic motivation and vowed it would be my motivator of choice.

My own children have grown up knowing that education is one of my great loves. On the whole, they have embraced my philosophy and I have never had to do much more than gently encourage them to complete their homework. Until a recent experience with the times tables.

Late last year, my daughter was doing some maths homework, when she struggled with some multiplication. I asked her if they were learning the times tables at school. She gave me a downcast look and said, “Yes”. But it was obvious she had no idea how to go about answering this question. Hoping to help, I launched into what ultimately turned into a convoluted explanation of why seven times three equals 21. My daughter’s expression went from confused to defeated.

The next Friday, my daughter came home to report that she had received six out of 24 for her seven-timestable test. As a child, a mark of six out of 24 would have upset me immensely, yet my daughter looked unperturbed and distinctly disengaged from the whole concept of the times tables.

Determined to find a way to help her, I did some research and came across the work of sociology professor and author Frank Furedi. In his article ‘Make Children Embrace the Boredom’, Furedi writes, “Deliberations on the curriculum are far more preoccupied with the question of how to motivate than what to teach… This leads to a situation where pedagogic innovation is frequently associated with the invention of motivational fads and gimmicks designed to keep children awake. All too often, the intellectual content of what pupils learn is subordinated to the imperative of motivation.” He suggests that, “When responsible adults hear a child complain that ‘I am bored’, they will not respond by transforming themselves into clowns”.

Furedi’s argument matched my own lofty beliefs in intrinsic motivation. So I sat night after night with my daughter, trying to get the times tables to make sense. Almost beaten, I lucked upon an old CD, previously discarded as irrelevant. It was called Times Tables = Fun and it had the times tables set to a variety of funky tunes. I caressed the CD worriedly. What would Mr Furedi say?

I recalled my son rattling off the names of dinosaurs at the age of three because we had a CD of dinosaur songs in the car. Could it really do any harm? I put the CD on when we were in the car, hoping my daughter would absorb it by osmosis. I sang along, but she didn’t join me. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I decided to sing in a funny voice. There was a sidelong glance from the pouting child next to me. Seizing on this flicker of interest, I challenged her: “See if you can sing it with me”. She did, half-heartedly at first, but eventually we were belting out the eight times table as if we were pop stars. Finally, she wanted to try it on her own. The first time she made a few mistakes and lapsed back into sullenness.

“You’ve nearly got it,” I encouraged. She tried again. Only two wrong. “Play it again, Mummy,” she pleaded. At last she was reaching the point where she desired mastery. I was thrilled. On the next rendition she got every single one right.

Okay, so CDs are still strictly on the extrinsic scale, but Frank Furedi be damned. My daughter mastered her eight times table. The next Friday, as she headed through the school gates, we went over the tables one last time in readiness for the weekly quiz. That afternoon when I asked how she did in the quiz she said, “We didn’t do it this week”. We both knew it didn’t matter.