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Whitstable Maths: Mental Arithmetic

Updated on September 14, 2016
Whitstable Views profile image

CJ Stone is an author and columnist. He appears regularly in the British press. Currently he has a column in the Whitstable Gazette.

Column first appeared in the Whitstable Gazette 19/08/2010

With tills that do it all for you, theres no incentive for people to learn the simple art of mental arithmetic...
With tills that do it all for you, theres no incentive for people to learn the simple art of mental arithmetic...


A friend of mine bought some goods from a well known local supermarket. The bill came to £4.96. He handed the assistant a fiver and then, to minimise the change in his pocket, another 6p.

That’s clear enough isn’t it? He was expecting 10p in change, instead of which the shop assistant gave him £1. So, being an honest sort of a chap, he told the girl that she’d made a mistake.

“What, haven’t I given you enough?” the assistant groaned, obviously peeved at the complex mental manoeuvres she was being asked to perform.

“No, you’ve given me too much,” he said, and then patiently began to explain what it was he was expecting. Even then she couldn’t get it right and gave him 20p instead. At which point my friend gave up. “You just can’t help some people,” he thought, pocketing the money.


Those of us brought up on mental arithmetic would have had no problem with this. We learned to add and subtract in our heads. When I was a barman, before the advent of electronic tills, you would have to tot the bill up as you were going along. Woe betide you if you made a mistake, as the customer was usually keeping a tally too, and would be quick to point it out to you.

What are the kids being taught these days? At one stage they were allowed to use calculators in their maths exams. I don’t know if this is still the case, but one thing is certain: they can’t add up any more.

With tills that do it all for you, there’s no incentive for people to learn the simple art of mental arithmetic. It’s a matter of training. If you never walked your legs would shrivel up. It’s the same with the brain. You need to put it to work in order for it to function properly.

No one is asking shop assistants to engage in trans-dimensional calculus while they’re adding up your bill, but they should at least be able to tell the difference between a 10p piece and a £1 coin.


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    • Whitstable Views profile image

      Whitstable Views 6 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      No I don't blame the kids either.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 6 years ago from Isle of Man

      People designing the curricula are not educators but bureaucrats who keep moving the goal posts so there is no continuity anymore when it comes to education and especially in Mathematics. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments in this hub but am reluctant to blame the children who are simply not being directed properly. Every child needs to learn tables and until they go back to making this a requirement in Primary School the problem will persist. Thank you for a great hub.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Interesting that someone besides me is disgusted with this. In my job I work with simple arithmetic quite often and it astounds me that new, younger employees cannot do the most simple addition and multiplication. 2 X 7.5 just isn't that hard, and neither is adding 1/2 and 3/4, but many young people just out of high school simply can't handle it.

      It seems that the basics are being left behind in our schools, and without an understanding of the roots I don't believe a person can ever truly understand the whole. But then, I'm not an educator and it seems it is more important to learn other things. Underwater basket weaving, maybe.

      The next few decades may be interesting as these folks grow up and take their place in society.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      I am not, no, Chris, but actually knowing how hopeless I am with arithmetic has put me off ever applying for such jobs or barwork! My father could never understand why I couldn't follow simple maths procedures because he is brilliant with maths. I can work sums out if I concentrate and have time and a pen and paper but not quick like most people. It's a disadvantage because it means I have to trust that change I am given is right to some extent.

    • Whitstable Views profile image

      Whitstable Views 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Hi Steve, but you're not being employed to take people's money in a supermarket are you? That's the point. You'd think a certain basic knowledge of how to add and subtract would be the first requirement of the job.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Chris, I can actually understand these people who can't add quickly. I was never able to do arithmetic in school and once had 4% in an exam although I had 85 in algebra. I am not much better now though fortunately have improved over the years but I still make mistakes. The man who collects the bills here has got used to me but he must think I am an idiot as I often make mistakes even when he has written the total figure down. I have some sort of number dyslexia! I usually work out roughly how much I need before I go shopping.