Open question: why study maths?

(Side note: I. am. so. tired. Dance practices and a LOT of walking round town and train journeys and ugh.)

Yesterday, I had the first proper teaching (as opposed to last week’s induction) session of the Maths Education Master’s I’m doing.

One of the questions that came up was this: why study maths? Now, the people on the course (unsurprisingly) don’t need convincing that maths is worth studying – but often students do. And we got talking about what answer you can give a kid when they ask “but why do I have to do this?”.

To narrow the subject a little bit: we were talking about secondary school level maths (i.e. up to age 15), and this is compulsory maths (so trying to look at arguments for why everybody should do maths).

Below are some of the answers we came up with. I’d be interested to hear other people’s views about this too – do chat in the comments.

Why should everyone learn maths?

  • (at a very basic level – primary school really) so you can manage daily life – e.g. shopping bills, checking that you’re not being ripped off.
  • it’ll help you get a better job (i.e. GCSE maths is pretty much required for pretty much anything in the UK and I suspect similar requirements exist in other countries)
  • it can be challenging, engaging and satisfying (the idea being that if your experience of maths is like this, you won’t spend so much time asking why you have to do it as it’ll be somewhat rewarding)
  • it can be fun (note can be – generally we didn’t think that maths necessarily “should” be fun)
  • it trains the brain
  • to gain knowledge (although a lot of maths taught up to GCSE won’t be useful in daily life, knowing what a radius or diameter is etc might come up)
  • to learn to think logically
  • to provide background knowledge for further courses in maths / physics / biology / chemistry / etc (obviously only applies to people who go on to do those things)
  • economics / business / science are vital in today’s world, and we need to have trained people who can go into these fields, so it makes sense to make everyone have a basic grounding in the prerequisite maths so that you have as wide a pool to draw from as possible
  • to be an educated person – we don’t just teach children so that they will be fitted for future careers, we teach them so that they will be educated people, and part of what most cultures value in educated people is a basic understanding of maths (although it is strangely socially okay to say you’re really bad at maths)

Some things I didn’t say at the time but have thought of since:

  • to be able to read graphs – i.e. when you read a newspaper and they show you a graph of some data and write a conclusion next to it, you want to be able to tell if it’s codswallop or not (or at least I want you to be able to tell!)
  • to be able to begin to understand statistics (doing it to GCSE level doesn’t do this – I don’t think one does any real stats until about S2/S3) so that when people talk about correlation / causation (again, in a newspapers or popular science setting) you can tell whether they’re talking crap or not
  • … to quote my old maths teacher … “shut up and get on with it”. Sometimes in life you have to do things you may not want to do. Get on with it. (Thinking of this mostly as a response to trying to make maths really engaging and satisfying and fun all the time – I think that there’s a certain amount of boredom / frustration that is inevitable, and part of becoming a mature person is learning to deal with that)

What do other people think of this? I found it an interesting thing to consider, because my answer for why study maths has always been “because it is there” and then later “because it is there and it is also rather nice” or occasionally replace “nice” with “cute/beautiful/elegant/satisfying/bizarre”.

I was always a kid who found it easy to concentrate and whipped through routine exercises in no time, so I don’t recall them being frustrating or boring particularly. But then I always valued science (career ambitions in order have included: generic scientist, computer programmer, mathmo, something in maths education), so I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to ask my teachers “why do I have to do maths?” – I knew that to keep my options open for doing what I wanted to do, I needed to do maths, besides which maths was reasonably doable (not necessarily easy but if I put in a bit of effort it got done) and satisfying.

Did you find maths boring / pointless during school? How would you answer a whiny year 8? Leave me a comment πŸ™‚

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2 Responses to Open question: why study maths?

  1. I’d say maths is empowering. It didn’t seem that way until I understood some of the parts that are relevant to me, which include:

    β€’ Basic stuff like addition.
    β€’ The realisation that I can use simple maths and logic everywhere to help me β€” this took years to sink in!

    For example, something I feel compelled to do occasionally is pick a gadget to buy. There’s usually a huge choice and I am terrible at decisions. I don’t like to gamble by just picking one that looks nice. Then it hits me: I can calculate this!

    I can narrow my options by ignoring gadgets that are prohibitively expensive or lack essential features. I can quantify the advantages of one vs another by making lists of features which are both useful and unique to certain gadgets. I can work out the real costs by adding in the accessories that I need (often more expensive models come with cables and protective covers but cheaper ones don’t).

    I can then express the price of one as a percentage of the price of another and ask myself “Based on the features I highlighted, does this one seem 40% better than that one?”

    Calculation doesn’t make the decision for me but it makes it seem less arbitrary. I know this is less relevant to people with less time or more more money that me, but it could be very useful to GCSE students. Perhaps as an exercise, students could be shown an old product catalogue and asked to select, with justifications, a phone or MP3 player that they could imagine themselves buying. To makes things less predictable, rename or remove the leading brands like iPods.

    Stupid idea. Never mind.

  2. Lucie says:

    I think linking maths to other subjects can be helpful, too. There’s a lot of maths in music, for instance, and also in computing. You’re much more likely to find kids at that age who love playing around on the computer or want to be super awesome famous musicians than who are going to go ‘YAY MATHS’.

    Logical thinking is the big one for me. Even if you’re not going to do much beyond fairly simple arithmetic when you’re out of school, there are all sorts of situations where you need to think about things in a logical and ordered manner.

    You could get them to write down a list of jobs they’d like to do and then point out where they’d need to use maths in each of them?

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