Love or Loathe: Timers

This week I posed a question to our Facebook community, asking if timers were a good mathematical tool. At the time of writing 71% of votes see timers as negative tools. Timers and what they stand for is something I am incredibly passionate about. 

Timers are used to promote the notion that to be fast at maths is to be good at maths. To be able to answer 25 questions in just 150 seconds measures your mathematical worth. It is utter nonsense, forced upon UK schools by curriculums that largely focus on facts and figures, resulting in exhausted teachers being pressured into teaching to tests, rather than developing curiosity and a love of learning. Does the time taken to answer the questions matter more to us than a students ability to answer the questions in the first place? 

I see first hand the long term damage that timers and timed testing have on students. Children as young as five have reported symptoms of maths anxiety, often citing that they don’t have enough time and they are not as fast as their peers as a primary concern. I teach a number of children who feel they are failures because they are unable to answer a question in 6 seconds! They see the timer ticking down and so anxious about it they completely forget to use their number sense. This isn’t the fault of the student, this is an overwhelmed brain, fearing failing. 

A timer may feel like low stakes to many adults, but many more will find them daunting. I have been amazed by the number of adults I have spoken to in recent months who fear maths. It provokes a physical reaction and they are unable to face tasks essential to ideas that they are.passionate about. This isn’t a society I want a part of and certainly isn’t a teaching method that I am willing to utilise. 

Schwartz revolutionised maths and our understanding, but was never the fastest mathematician in his class and was often told he had little maths ability.

This week would have been SATs week in England, but thankfully Covid-19 has spared this year’s Year 6. Are the students missing the exams? Are the teachers distraught that they aren’t happening? I wouldn’t have thought so. The lack of timed test is not going to have a negative impact on those students in the future. In fact, for some, it will land them I’m a higher set as their teacher is able to judge their actual ability, not their ability to sit quietly and focus on a range of different problems in a given period of time.

This year’s Year 4s were partially saved, with the Multiplication Table Check being made optional for schools for another year. The National Curriculum for England states that all 9 year olds should know all multiplication facts up to and including the 12 times table. Not only should they know them, but to be deemed successful they must be able to relay 25 randomly selected facts within 150 seconds. That does not in any way inform anyone of which children are good mathematicians. It instead tells us which children have the highest performing hippocampus (the working memory bit of the brain). 

Students don’t need to rote learn facts and regurgitate them in a set time to be good at maths. Instead students need to be confident in exploring numbers, their relationships to each other and how they interlink. They need to have number sense. This isn’t knowing the 9 x 9 =81. This is knowing that 10x 9 = 90 and subtracting 9 will give me the answer I need. This means they are able to reason and explain their maths, tell you about it using proper terminology and represent their ideas in different ways. 

We are so keen to differentiate learning, however, we are quick to set a standardised test to a time frame and judge our students based on this. Testing has it’s place, but is it really on our youngest students? We wouldn’t deem a child poor at science because they couldn’t write the water cycle out in 6 seconds, why should that be measure of maths ability? 

It’s not maths that causes anxiety in our students, it’s the fear of failing, being behind their peers or facing a ticking timer. Everyone has an inner mathematician and everyone should have the opportunity to release their inner mathematician.

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