• Educating Charlie

When Students Question "What is the point?" in Mathematics


“What is the point in doing this?” A voice cries. “When am I ever going to need this?” Another student questions. “I hate maths!”

As a teacher of mathematics, I have heard this far too often; teachers outside of mathematics have probably heard these cries surrounding mathematics too! Even well after students have left school, potentially even bought their own homes and started their own families, there are still the questions relating to the purpose of mathematics in our education system.

“Why did they never teach us about taxes in maths? It would be much better if we were taught useful things like mortgages? Why was I taught trigonometry when what I really needed was to know about my salary, paying bills and having a pension?” My main thought to myself here: would teenagers really be interested in the further understanding of a pension? How could that understanding be possible without an understanding of the number system and percentages and the language that is applicable too? I suppose like with all subjects, some would be interested, and some would continue with their argument that it is not relevant to them. Some will have prior knowledge to understand these ‘adult’ concepts further, whilst some will not, but these things change considerably over time anyway so would it be possible for a school curriculum to include this as a fundamental element? I do agree with this to some extent, the purpose of school (in my opinion) is to prepare young people to be adults in society, to be able to function competently socially as well as within the work force and live happily and comfortably. So, I suppose all these questions come down to perspective.

I have recently had my perception of the mathematical curriculum altered dramatically. And I am excited! When I have been faced with the questioning of its purpose I have, rightly or wrongly, leaned towards discussing the purpose of the content in our current society and that what we teach is to open possibilities for students in our society. Why did I do this? I have no idea! I hadn’t really thought too much about it before if I’m honest. I think I had heard others say it before me, I had seen resources saying something to this effect and I suppose it was a quick way of giving our learning some purpose and then swiftly moving on.

But finally, I have begun to reflect on this. The bigger picture of mathematics but most importantly its purpose. I am shocked and amazed at these views I had not considered previously, and I am a little frustrated with myself for not thinking about this further. I don’t believe I was wrong to say what I have said in the past, I don’t think it is wrong to relate the learning to the exam that will provide the qualification, but it is a shame that for years I have missed such a fantastic opportunity to help others clearly see why I have such a love for this subject.

My original perception relates to my job role I suppose. If I am brutally honest, I thought my main role was to have students learn mathematics, see the potential for it in their lives and ultimately pass a qualification that they have now been told they must achieve a certain level of. If I could ignite some passion in the students, excellent. If I could have them understand a little of why I love the subject, brilliant. If they love the subject too, fantastic! But it can be so much more. It should be so much more!

The national curriculum states: “Mathematics is a creative and highly inter-connected discipline that has been developed over centuries, providing the solution to some of history’s most intriguing problems. It is essential to everyday life, critical to science, technology and engineering, and necessary for financial literacy and most forms of employment. A high-quality mathematics education therefore provides a foundation for understanding the world, the ability to reason mathematically, an appreciation of the beauty and power of mathematics, and a sense of enjoyment and curiosity about the subject.”

I understand what this means but have been told that, “it is because you love maths”. Yes, I do! I love the way that mathematics is like building blocks and many ideas build on top of each other. I enjoy appreciating the way complex formulas unfold the moment they are given context and when you step back and can visualise the thought process throughout. I appreciate the logical elements of the subject; I see maths as a science. I relish in the creativity of the subject with its links to art and music.

“Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Albert Einstein.

Whilst making time over lockdown for more CPD than ever before, my school brought a fantastic book to my attention which has been fundamental to my thought changes. This book is “The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence” by Mary Myatt. This is not a mathematical book, but it has done me wonders and I will highly recommend anyone to read it, regardless of their career level.

I am in awe of Mary’s writing of this book, it has highlighted how far away from key purposes we can be at times and, in a way, I have been grounded by her thoughts. Data is not everything, the learning is; many of us will have heard this plenty of times, but how many of us listen? The development of the skill of learning, that thirst and that drive that students can develop should and must remain the focus. And in terms of mathematics, we can have students appreciate the beauty of it.

“We need to develop a culture of celebrating numeracy” Mary writes, and I couldn't agree more. I would be waving my pom-poms in the air right now if I had any!

It is through reading about the full curriculum that I have finally developed an understanding of what the National Curriculum purpose for mathematics means. Mathematics is a fundamental subject which underpins many different ideas. Mathematics is a science in its abstract form, but my realisation is its importance of history and the world. I have realised that mathematics can actually connect the entire curriculum, not with far fetched ideas to make it sound plausible, but through understanding the development of mathematics over time.

Mathematics links to computer science, not only due to the processes but also through Ada Lovelace, a female mathematician widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer.

There are links to music; my colleague perfectly described them both as having things written as symbols and when brought to life can create something beautiful. The links to geography which we can explore due to the many influences on mathematics from throughout the world, as well as differences too! Mathematics can even be easily linked to English and other languages when we start looking at the etymology of words, but mathematics has structures in the same way there are sentence structures. Explicitly making these connections within the classroom will not take time away from the learning that is taking place, it will reshape it. It will ignite that passion in so many more students and spark that interest. Mathematics will not be a chore because it will have purpose even in its most abstract form.

I am excited for this revelation and to regain control of the learning in my classroom; I look forward to moving away from the exam focus which can be prevalent for too many and watching the fire in the eyes of students as they appreciate mathematics in its most beautiful form.

“The study of mathematics, like the Nile, begins in minuteness but ends in magnificence.” Charles Caleb Colton.

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