02 July 2015

Lessons of the ‘7-times table’

This is the thirty fifth in a series I am writing for the JEANS section of 'The Nation'.  The series is for children. Adults consider yourselves warned...you might re-discover a child within you! Scroll down for other articles in this series. 

There’s no one way to learn the multiplication tables.  You can just look at the multiplication table, say it out loud and commit it to memory.  If it is the ‘8-times table’ you would say ‘8 times 1 is 8, 8 times 2 is 16, 8 times 3 is 24 etc.’  You can do the age-old method of ‘counting fingers’.  There are probably other ways of learning.  There was once a boy who devised an unusual system.  This is his story.

The boy didn’t have trouble with the ‘easy ones’, that is the two-times table, three-times table, five-times table and the ten-times table.  He managed the four-times table too using the ‘reading it out loud’ method.  He was ok with the six-times table too.  He got stuck on ‘7’.

He couldn’t get the number 7 out of his head.  And he needed to learn the table because he didn’t want to get into trouble with his maths teacher in school.  So he started ‘saying it’ in his head.  But he imposed a rule on himself.  As he walked from the school gate to his class, he said ‘7 times 1 is 7’ and then took a step.  Until he got ‘7 times 2 is 14’ he wouldn’t keep the next step.  He walked very slowly — remember he didn’t know the 7 times table and he had to ‘finger-count’ each step of the way.   When he got to ‘7 times 12 is 84’ he went back to ‘7 times 1 is 7’.  

There was some distance from gate to class and he found that although he was slower than the other boys rushing to class, he was increasing his speed.  He was still quite slow with the 7 times table by the time he got to class. The maths teacher didn’t trouble him, but the boy wanted to be faster.  So he continued the exercise from class to the canteen during the interval, up and down the stairs, from class to gate and gate to school bus, from bus stop to home.   Yes, it sounds a bit crazy, but after a few days he was really very fast.  

Then he extended it to the other numbers, including the ones he knew.  By and by he came to love numbers.  He saw patterns.  He invented number games.  He found that he could a lot of vacant hours in the wonderful world of numbers.    

What we are concerned about here is the method.  The step-by-step method, if you want to call it that.  It can be applied to other things as well, not just the multiplication tables. It can be applied to anything you have to memorise.  A poem, a set of equations, a geometric theorem, a verse from the Dhammapada or anything.  If it is a four-line verse, each step can be used for a single line.  If it is the periodic table, you can use a step for each element: H (Hydrogen), He (Helium), Li (Lithium), Be (Beryllium) etc.  Or you could go down the columns, for example the first: H, Li, Na (Sodium), K (Potassium) etc.  

And you don’t have to limit it to walking.  You can replace the step-by-step method with sip-by-sip of water, tea, thambili or a soft drink.  It would tough if you are really thirsty, but then that is the beauty of challenging yourself.  The possibilities are endless.  Think about it.  One step or sip at a time.  

Other articles in this series