Some pretty innovative ideas have come out of Temuka – Richard Pearse’s flying machine, winter pullovers for lambs. Prattley mobile sheep-yards. The list goes on. So, when 3 News ran a story about a Temuka woman inventing a new way to teach the times tables, I, an ex-Temuka boy myself, just had to check it out.The beautiful hill country around Pleasant Point is little more than a hop and a holler from Temuka. Francee More and a yapping dog greet us in the farm driveway, while chickens, pheasants and a teenage son busy themselves in the yard.
We’re not the first to get in touch, she tells us. TV3 story sparked a lot of interest. Invitations have come from as far away as Rotorua. Even before the TV story, a publishing company had signed her up for a book that will come out this summer. Everyone, it seems, wants to know how to teach the times tables.She waves a letter that has just arrived from Education Minister Trevor Mallard.
It’s a belated reply to one she had written six weeks earlier. Perhaps jogged by the TV item, the minister is inviting her to submit a discussion paper to a forthcoming meeting of curriculum maths advisors. All a bit overwhelming for someone who left school at 15 and is, in her own words, “outside of the square- an ordinary mother, three sons, ditched, on her own, struggling, like anyone else”.She waves a letter that has just arrived from Education Minister Trevor Mallard. It’s a belated reply to one she had written six weeks earlier. Perhaps jogged by the TV item, the minister is inviting her to submit a discussion paper to a forthcoming meeting of curriculum maths advisors. All a bit overwhelming for someone who left school at 15 and is, in her own words, “outside of the square" an ordinary mother, three sons, ditched, on her own, struggling, like anyone else”.
More’s interest in education began as a parent helper at a local school. A neighbour later encouraged her to become a literacy and numeracy tutor. Several years on, while tutoring some of the street kids and drivers licence applicants, she found out about multi-sensory techniques. A small light went on. In multi-sensory teaching, students use touch and movement to reinforce new information. More began developing hand and finger actions that her students could use. Suddenly I had it,” she says. “I saw that, taking it a bit further, I could teach the times tables with this. Tables were what my students needed most. Many had gone right through school unable to do simple measurements, monetary calculations or even keep darts scores.” But they had to be talked into it first.“One guy bought a car. He was paying $20 a week and it was going to take him 18 months. He had no concept of the times tables and he didn’t want to learn them. So I showed him how to multiply his car payments by the number of weeks, and you should have seen the look on his face. He discovered that the interest he was paying was $600.00 more than the price of the car. He could have bought another two cars for that. He realised, then, that he needed his times tables.”Twiddling one’s fingers began to take on a new meaning in Temuka.
More knew she was on a winner when some of her more able students began doing the 17 times table. It was about then that the folk who spin the funding wheel decided to change the way they distributed the adult tutoring money. The agency could no longer keep More on. “There I was, with this new method, heaps of tutoring skills, wanting to help people and no one to teach.”But you can’t keep a good idea down. She wrote her book and then set about finding what else she could do with the method. She found that it works for subjects other than maths and can be adapted for classroom teaching as well as one-to-one. The local school let her try it a small group. “It went like a dream,” she says. “By the end of our first session, these nine and 10-year-olds had learnt the three and four times tables, the ins and outs of long multiplication and the basics of division. I had them doing things like multiplying four, and even 44, by big numbers like 379.” Word got around. TV3 came knocking. The segment that went to air showed a 10 year-old girl multiplying by 17 after just 10 minutes of More’s tutoring. More’s phone and mailbox have been busy ever since.
She is quick to point out that her system isn’t magic. It still requires practise and work. But it is quicker and easier than traditional methods. To test that claim, I asked her to try it on my six-year-old son. She was itching to. In less than half an hour, Caidan had his four times table.Have the times tables suddenly become sexy?
Or are people just losing faith in calculators? Perhaps the answer lies in the latest Education Review Office report, “In Time for the Future: A Comparative Study of Mathematics and Science Education”. It says that New Zealand school children aren’t doing very well at mathematics.
In 1994, our kids scored below average in the international mathematics survey known as TIMSS. Talk at the time was that the new constructivist, process-orientated curriculum would fix that. But the preliminary results of the latest TIMSS survey indicate that on average the performance of Year 5 and Year 9 students in mathematics in 1998 was about the same as the performance of Year 5 and Year 9 students in 1994.The ERO compared these results with those of another like-minded nation, the Netherlands. Snap! Between 1989 and 1999, Dutch students made no gains in the areas that their new process-orientated maths curriculum was emphasising and they actually got worse at mechanical operations and recall – things such as remembering and using their times tables. Says the ERO report: “While students were being taught to think flexibly about mathematics, the study showed that those who used the flexible approach to solving algorithms were more likely to arrive at incorrect answers.” The report adds: “Interestingly, the approach to teaching mathematics in the Netherlands is similar to that advocated in New Zealand.”Such findings wouldn’t surprise many New Zealand parents and they do help explain why Francee More’s innovation has attracted such interest. Heading home, I asked Caidan what four sixes are. He wiggles his fingers, gives me the answer and says, “That’s pipsqueaks.” What higher endorsement could a maths advisor ask?