It’s likely that almost every mathematics teacher has, at some point, been asked by a frustrated student, ‘what’s the point in learning maths?’
More than any other, maths is a subject that baffles and dispirits, a marmite subject either loved or loathed, leaving adults who are marked by a lack of passion, little ability or bad teaching, insisting they don’t need maths in their everyday lives anyway.
But does that add up? After all, maths is present in every aspect of our lives. If we look at nature, maths is there in its patterns and structures – the complex hives of bees, spiders’ webs, the perfect symmetry of snowflakes. In everyday life, whether we are shopping, planning a holiday, applying for a mortgage or measuring up for new curtains, maths is there, and in our jobs, as mechanics or doctors, musicians or cooks, shopkeepers or architects, maths is there.
The ICM course list is full of courses which include modules on finance or accounting, obvious ones like project management, retail, purchasing and supply, business, and accountancy, but also less obviously maths-orientated careers such as maritime management and sports management.
More advanced maths, largely unseen and unappreciated by the vast majority of us, has many acknowledged, practical applications in areas such as, politics, engineering, computer science, statistics and data analysis, while for purists, maths is an awesome discipline in its own right, lauded by experts as challenging and beautiful – the queen of science.
Its importance in our lives should not, therefore, be underestimated.
Try managing your personal finances, understanding health information or making sense of economic news or statistics without numeracy, and it would soon lead to chaos and bad decision-making. Without realising it, our decisions both inside and outside the home are often based on numerical information. Even something as simple as following a cake recipe or understanding your restaurant bill, requires numeracy, and so too does understanding the UK’s deficit or global warming statistics. In short, to make the best cakes and the best decisions, we need to be numerate.
Even advanced maths which doesn’t appear to have an obvious application is important, says Professor Sir Timothy Gowers, a Royal Society Research Professor at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at Cambridge University. Using such knowledge in research may not yield any practical applications for years, he says, but still there is a value in maths research because advancing the subject has deep implications for human progress.
However, says Gowers:
“A typical mathematician does not actively try to be useful.”
For him or her, the subject is enough as a mental exercise alone, a thing of beauty, interesting, enjoyable, challenging and satisfying.
Its principles of pattern and structure, logic, deduction and calculation furnish it with the tools for understanding a whole host of fields and hold the key to developing careers for the future.
The capacity maths has to develop imagination, train in clear and logical thought, enable reasoning and problem solving and, at the same time, be creative and be an international language which transcends cultural boundaries, makes mathematics one of the most crucial disciplines on earth, making difficult things easy, explaining why things are as they are, and challenging research mathematicians to harvest the huge amounts of data that technology now enables them to accumulate and apply it in our technologically advanced world.
“A good way to look at mathematics as a whole, is that it is huge body of knowledge, a bit like an encyclopaedia but with an enormous number of cross-references,” says Gowers.