Maths is not special

I’ve been thinking recently about the ‘state’ of maths education in the UK. I’ve been thinking about the general disdain for maths that often stems from parents, which in turn originates in the teaching they experienced, and no doubt their parents before them, ad infinitum. I decided to view it from a different perspective for a change. Sadly the conclusions I came up with were not great. Consider this an executive summary:

1. Maths is not special.

2. Maths is not maths at all.

If we overcome these two minor points, then we’ll all be fine. What’s that? They’re not minor? I suppose you’re right. Ho hum.

1. Maths is not special.

Let me be clear. Mathematics is special to me. I love it, and this blog is a kind of ‘duh’ testament to that. But should it be considered in such high regard (perhaps the wrong words) at school? Should it be a ‘core’ subject? Should there even be core subjects?  Why are schools judged on it? Why do universities and employers supposedly value it more than other subjects?If you are sitting there with a smug grin on your face whispering ‘oh but you neeeeed maths. Maths is everywhere. Maths is in everything”. Slap your face. Maths is not everywhere. You don’t NEED it. You need it no more than you need English, or Geography, or Music. In fact, I’d say you need English more than maths. I need to be able to read and write far more than I need to be able to work numerically (occupation aside). I know English (the subject) isn’t quite so simple as ‘learning to read and write’, but I’m pretty sure those two things primarily fall under their remit.

Don’t start telling me I need it to do my shopping either. No I don’t. Amazon adds everything up for me just fine, and the credit card company and my bank do a pretty good job of subtracting everything for me. Do I need *basic* numeracy? I’ll say yes, although with a little hesitancy again over the ‘need’ part, unless we’re talking exclusively about number operations. I suspect those who got a D or lower in GCSE are not all dying in a ditch somewhere. But is basic numeracy what we teach? Really? I’m pretty sure 99% of what I teach is stuff I know students will never use again, and has absolutely no merit in society – even for those who go on to maths based careers… maths teachers aside perhaps.

“Oh but what if you’re at a restaurant, with ten people, and you need to work out…”

Come now. Let’s not play this game. There’s an app for that… and everything else these days. Granted someone has to MAKE the app, and for that they need to know some pretty good maths, but someone has to write a book, and they need to be proficient in English, and someone else has to play in the Premier League, and they need to be pretty good at football… do you see??

The reasons behind maths being compulsory, and therefore eventually evolving into a ‘judged’ subject are historic, boring, and frankly redundant. I’m sure you could look them up. The sad fact is though, that they’re not REALLY redundant, because we’re obliged to carry on with this silly charade as long as society refuses to break the mould. And it won’t. So we’re stuck in this annoying loop.

Isn’t it obvious that it’s this very ‘necessity’ to get a good grade in maths, and to even DO ‘maths’ that is compounding all of our issues? Covering a meaningless and fragmented curriculum, forcing revision classes for countless disinterested students, employing anything with a pulse to teach maths because there are no maths teachers, because no-one wants to be a maths teacher because they hated maths and everyone hates maths and the pressures that come with maths teaching are awful and and and. Sorry I forgot to write proper sentences. How important English is!

It probably sounds like I’m trying to fix “the problem” by just getting rid of all the students. Not quite. I just want people to like real maths, and appreciate real maths. Oh, that’s the other thing. The thing we’re teaching isn’t real maths at all.

2. Maths is not maths at all.

School maths is not proper maths. Mathematics is about playing about with things, finding out obscure patterns and saying “oooh that’s cool… and what if…”. Maths is about looking for relationships, or inventing relationships and seeing if they hold. Maths is about probing for answers to problems that don’t show you where to go or what to use. Maths has a history, a story, a path, a journey and a whole host of mysteries. Those things aren’t taught. Not by many, and certainly not often. Why? Don’t blame the teachers, blame the curriculum. Blame the entire structure of ‘maths’ at school. Blame ratios, blame cosec, blame improper fractions, blame histograms. Do those things seem disjointed? That’s because THEY ARE DISJOINTED. Throw a dart at those dull, dull pages and blame that. I don’t think many maths teachers even know what maths is. To most of us, it’s whatever is in those text books. What a pity. Wouldn’t it be nice to teach core skills as and when they are needed, or when a tool set has run its course, and we need to find a new tool? Imagine if we could just play around with numbers and patterns and problems for a while, see where it takes us. Of course I’m living a fantasy here. These ideas are perhaps just plain ridiculous, and no doubt you could give me a hundred reasons as to why they wouldn’t work. But what we’re doing now doesn’t really work does it? Maybe more people would enjoy maths if they saw it for what it really is – an art. A plaything. A complex puzzle waiting for you to pick a section and start solving it.

Instead it’s more often than not a whole bunch of formulae and algorithms with no meaning attached, forced down people’s throats until they choke.

9 thoughts on “Maths is not special

  1. But no-one dares say this on this side of the pond. Too much truth. I guess I was lucky, my maths teacher was one of the authors of SMP, the School Mathematics Project of the late 60’s. We are going through the same thing here, now, with the Common Core. Good stuff, good ideas, destined to die at the hands of non mathematical teachers and bitty bitty tests with a planned failure rate of around 60 to 70%.
    Of course I had to reblog this.

  2. “Maybe more people would enjoy maths if they saw it for what it really is – an art. A plaything. A complex puzzle waiting for you to pick a section and start solving it.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Math is an art, a way to communicate, a way to describe the world. My passion lies in getting as many people as I can to see mathematics in this way. I didn’t always see it this way. It’s grown on me over the years and I never tire of learning more and digging deeper…picking a section of the puzzle and trying to solve it.

  3. So, so true. Find says preparation painful. Who is ever going to need to transfer info from a Carroll to a Venn diagram? Nrich is helping with the thinking and conjecturing along with seeing the fun, but unless you get the way it improves mathematical thinking and a love of the subject you wont value it.

  4. Pingback: Maths is not special | Solve My Maths | Learning Curve

  5. Saludos, desde México. Tu blog plantea ejemplos muy interesantes y divertidos, pocas paginas se dedican a compartir y difundir sus experiencias (en este caso relacionadas con la matemática), muchas de sus sugerencias las he llevado a clase con mis alumnos con buenos resultados inmediatos, espero siga con su proyecto.
    Aquí en mi país, las matemáticas son consideradas un castigo, donde alguien debe calcular para hacernos la vida más fácil, como país dependiente esperamos que ustedes los países desarrollados hagan teoría y nosotros solo consumir, los planes de estudio están sin conexion alguna, son aburridas nuestras clases, no relacionamos la matemática con los avances tecnicos (ya que carecemos de experiencia en este campo). Una propuesta tuya de hacerla divertida me dio resultado, pero la dinamica del plan de estudios no me permite seguir haciéndolo, ya que nosotros los maestros tenemos que seguir el plan de estudios, si no lo hacemos, nos castigan las autoridades, no nos permiten proponer nuevas alternativas, esta muy politizada la educación.

  6. Pingback: 10 reasons why It’s a great time to be a maths teacher | Solve My Maths

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