Making the sums add up

Many young people think that mathematics is boring, irrelevant and too difficult compared with other subjects. But there’s no need to scrap the existing educational system to fix the problem, as Dave Wilson explains.

‘Life is good for only two things, discovering mathematics and teaching mathematics.’ – Siméon Poisson.

Many young people think that mathematics is boring, irrelevant and too difficult compared with other subjects. And let’s face it, is it any wonder? When studied in isolation, it really can seem to be a rather abstract subject with no practical purpose.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that currently less than 10% of students in England continue studying mathematics after the age of 16. And less than 10% of those who do continue go on to read mathematics at University.

These rather frightening revelations, contained in a report for the Government that was produced last month by Professor Adrian Smith, the principal of Queen Mary University, London, don’t bode well for the future of the ‘knowledge economy’ in the UK. Especially when you consider the fact that mathematics is the language that underpins the rest of science and engineering – not to mention other disciplines in social and medical sciences.

So what’s to be done about it? How can we make the subject of mathematics more relevant and interesting to the students themselves?

I don’t think that should be too difficult. And we don’t need to scrap the current system of GCSE and A levels either. Nor do we need to ‘dumb down’ or ‘sex up’ the subject to make it more appealing. All we have to do is to introduce aspects of mathematics into other GCSE courses of study to provide students with a context in which they can fully appreciate its importance. You name the course, and I’ll tell you the angle.

In History, for example, students could be taught about the pioneering work of famous historical figures such as Sir Isaac Newton or George Boole. In the French GCSE, students might care to discuss Fourier’s mathematical theory of heat conduction. In GCSE Religious studies, students could potentially gain an insight into the basic geometric principles which were applied in the construction of ritual altars during the Vedic era in India. Introducing mathematics as part of the natural sciences curricula should be a piece of cake after that!

Of course, we’re bound to get someone smart alecks saying that my wonderful new approach will end up taking students away from their ‘core subjects’. They’ll accuse me of making the ‘other’ subjects too hard when the students fail to make their grades. And I’ll probably get the blame too when the school that endorses my scheme starts to slips down the league tables and OFSTED comes snooping around. And it’s me that will be held responsible when folks stop sending their kids to that school and the local authority decides to cut back the school budget. Not to mention the outrage in the local community when the kids that can’t hack it start hanging around bus stops drinking cider and procreating, causing a further drain on state resources.

And why? All because I wanted everyone to understand the mathematics behind a temple.