It is one of the most often-asked questions in the maths classroom: “Why are we doing this?” Common answers include “because it is in the specification”, “because it might come up in the exam” or, more worrying maybe, “because I say so”.
Do our students question the teachers of geography or history or religious studies about why they are studying the formation of oxbow lakes, the wives of Henry VIII or the concept of morality? Not to the same degree, certainly. Why? Because they see it as the acquisition of knowledge, there is some cultural relevance or some significance in how we might act as human beings.
Mathematics is essentially abstract. When will our students every need to do trigonometry in real-life? And algebra, what’s that all about? Even studying the properties of quadrilaterals or triangles, or the angle rules on parallel lines – these are abstract concepts, even if visual. The two areas of mathematics which are most relevant, skills in basic numeracy and statistical analysis, are now being superseded by the use of modern computation and extremely good calculators. So I guess I can see the point when the students question the purpose of studying mathematics.
But, we can give a perfectly good answer which does not refer to the need to pass an exam at the end of year 11. That answer is simply “why not!” Mathematics trains the mind, it teaches the principles of logic, it is also part of the body of knowledge that it is good to acquire, much like the formation of oxbow lakes or the wives of Henry VIII. And more important than all of this, it does have cultural relevance since the birth of mathematics many thousands of years ago in ancient civilisations like Babylonia and Greece.
Tell the students about the tales of the history of mathematics. When learning about Pythagoras’ theorem, why not tell them about the mysticism and paranoia surrounding the secret Pythagorean Brotherhood (that should get them talking), or about how Hypatia, one of the most important female mathematicians of antiquity, was persecuted and tortured for simply trying to pass on the most important teachings of the time?
We can also move away from the curriculum from time to time. We are blessed as a subject to have lots of timetable time so why not use it? When studying the abstract concepts of shape and space, why not get the students to do a little research into how some of the most famous artists have used mathematics in their work? Look at Kandinsky, for example, or the work of Escher. All children are essentially inquisitive so let’s pique their interest. We are still going to have to do the boring stuff for the exam, but it goes down much better if we show them something of the power, beauty and passion of mathematics at the same time.
Ian Bettison initially worked as an accountant, but retrained as a maths teacher, and is now Head of Department at King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls in Birmingham. He has been involved in developing active learning: working on projects funded by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics and The Royal Society. Ian is also Subject Leader for Mathematics at the King Edward’s Consortium, a provider of initial teacher training in Birmingham. He recently contributed to the MyMathsforKS3 scheme and the third edition of STP Mathematics.