Heathdale flower 20th June 2019

Maths: What’s the Point?

When you're asked, 'What's the point of math?' Remind yourself of the everyday importance of the only, truly universal language.

Heathdale flower

Once upon a time, I was a secondary maths teacher. I miss the beauty in exploring God’s creation of the simple number. At university, I remember spending hours solving equations and loving every minute of it. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I was wasting my time. Have I ever really felt the need to use the maths I learnt other than teaching it to the next generation? 

Occasionally children ask me what the point of learning maths is, often saying it’s ‘too hard’. Overall, negative reactions to mathematics are on the rise. Between 2000-2014, the percentage of students studying Advanced Mathematics fell from 11.9% to 9.6% and Intermediate Mathematics from 25% to 19.1%. It doesn’t help that we often have a love/hate relationship with the subject. If as parents, we say, ‘I was never any good at maths,’ the likelihood is that your child will think the same.

If you are a person who never liked the age-old science, I encourage you to think again. Maths is incredibly important in our lives. We use mathematical concepts and maths-related skills every day. Probably unsurprisingly, research conducted at Stanford University found that learning maths is also good for your brain. It indicated that children who know maths are able to recruit certain brain regions more reliably, and assist in decision-making and attentional processes.

An overemphasis on the skills of maths (basic number facts, equations) at the expense of actually working as a mathematician (reasoning, problem solving, modelling, using technology) can disenfranchise young people.

For many students, their understanding of mathematics is completing tasks set by a teacher rather than developing their own understanding of angles or volume or capacity. Our teachers at Heathdale look for opportunities for students to use maths beyond the prescribed daily lesson (for example, location and orientation activities while playing sport, patterning while learning music, or using perspective in visual arts).

Being a bit of a maths parent I encourage my children to think about and use maths in every day contexts. For example, when travelling, we play games that look for patterns in car number plates (digits that are consecutive 3, 4, 5 or prime 2, 5, 7 or square 144). The kids can predict which routes are quickest while using updated data on mobile devices, or determine how much of their favourite TV shows are devoted to advertising.

Math is the universal language.  Sure, it’s mostly equations, numbers, and some Greek letters, but math is understood the same virtually all over the world. A maths equation doesn’t need to be translated to another language to be understood by someone on the other side of the planet.  A mathematical law doesn’t change because someone speaks a different language from you.  2 + 2 = 4 in every single place on Earth. The universality of maths is one of the many things that makes it such a powerful tool and, indeed, essential life skill.

So the next time your child asks what is the point of maths, my answer would be that maths helps you to understand why things happen the way they do (why presents cost more at Christmas); predict what might happen in the future (using probability to work out how likely it will be that my favourite toy character will appear in a box of cereal); or solve puzzles to assist the heroine unlock the next level in the latest video game.

So sure, I don’t use the exact knowledge the mathematical calculus I did at university but I use the effective thinking skills it taught me every day.