Pointing out the plus side of maths to youngsters

As a parent – or even teacher – you are likely to have been asked the question: “What’s the point of maths?”

This is often followed by: “When will I ever use this stuff?” or “How will maths help me later in life?”

These questions, not often asked of other school subjects, indicate that for some children, maths is seen as something belonging only to school classrooms.As parents it is not always easy to respond to questions such as these.

The questions young people ask about maths often relate to their personal experience of how they found maths in school, rather than questions about maths per se.

Reportssuggest that young people’s negative attitudes towards maths are increasing, even as early as primary school. This is largely due to the maths being taught as a recipe.

If we do A then B then C we get the correct answer to a problem we didn’t pose in the first place – and with little understanding of the ingredients.

Maths in schools is largely skills-based – such as learning how to determine internal angles of shapes or using formulas to determine volume or capacity – rather than a study of what mathematics actually is.

IT’S A PROBLEM: Reports suggest that young people’s negative attitudes towards maths are increasing.

Mathematics is a study of patterns and a means of representing and describing the world in terms of quantities, shapes, and relationships. This means that 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.

Teachers could look for opportunities for students to use maths beyond the prescribed daily lesson (for example, location and orientation activities while playing sport, or patterning while learning music).

Parents could encourage their children to think about and use maths in every day contexts.For example, when travelling, children can look for patterns in car number plates (digits that are consecutive 3, 4, 5 or prime 2, 5, 7 or square 144). They might predict which routes are quickest while using updated data on mobile devices.

What is needed in our conversations with young people is a recognition that we use maths every day – perhaps without noticing it.Because the focus on maths in schools is on skills, rather than solving authentic problems, young people are discouraged from further study in this area.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) may then further disenfranchise young people.Between2000-2014, the percentage of students studying Advanced Mathematics fell from 11.9 per centto 9.6 per centand Intermediate Mathematics from 25 per centto 19.1 per cent.

A common misconception is that only a select handful of occupations use maths. But most occupations (for example, nurses, pilots, fashion designers, builders, journalists, truck drivers) use maths every day, often solving problems collaboratively.

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; 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.

Kevin Larkin is lecturer (mathematics education) atGriffith University.

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