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February 13, 2003
Maths even more applicable than applied maths

Just in case you don't regularly read Rational Parenting (a mistake on your part, I think, but let that pass), do go there today for an interesting piece by Alice about the maths bit of Britain's current National Curriculum. This key paragraph comes right at the end:

P.S. I've just worked out what this complicatedness is all about: the maths syllabus is apeing real life. It's trying to make itself relevant, by being applied-maths instead of just simple maths-maths. This is nuts. The whole reason maths matters at all is that you can and do apply it; the real-life situations are the applying part. Sigh.

By all means teach maths by referring to particular applications of it in real life points totals in the Premier League, lengths of bits of wallpaper, areas of wall to determine how much paint you need, speeds of trains to determine times of journeys, etc. etc. By all means, illustrate all those universal statements. But maths itself is of such universal applicability that to embed such illustrative embellishment in the very structure of what must be learned is to limit its universality, and to miss the point of the thing completely.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:34 PM
Category: Maths

This is true, but on the other hand a lot of students study maths and don't really understand the practical applications. I think most people studying calculus in high school just learn how to do calculus, and don't see the practical applications at all. (I find it impossible to look across the room without seeing half a dozen, but most people fail to do this completely). And, in my experience, a great many maths teachers do not see the applications either. I think they key issue is actually the understanding of teachers. If the teacher gets the practical applications, then the students will pick them up too. Merely mentioning them in the syllabus without the intuitive understanding being there in the teaching isn't actually going to help.

(I have a Ph.D. in maths).

Comment by: MIchael Jennings on February 14, 2003 09:11 PM

The thing is, Michael, the Key Stage One syllabus doesn't distinguish between what is maths, and what is practical applications. It just mixes them all up together, in an attempt to *transform* straightforward "Maths" (school level)as we understood it in the 1950s (say) into New Maths... something relevant! Hip! Cool! and altogether... (rips up textbook in despair)

This leaves kids understanding ever *less* about how maths matters: they are so confused, they can't apply the simplest thing to any real problem at all. I mean, if you wanted to know who swam a length of the pool fastest, would you time all the children and put them on a bar chart? If you wanted to work out how to spend your 10 Christmas money, would you write down the prices of all the nice toys in the shop and then arrange them in ascending order? On the other hand, being really practised and confident at mental arithmetic would actually really help, a lot.

The way it is now, maths becomes just "that weird stuff we get tested on at school". Perversely, the opposite effect than was likely originally intended.

Although, some people have a *very* vested interest in keeping the education process surrounded by a dark cloak of smoke and mystery. They're called School Educators. I wonder how long till they realise the Home People have got the drop on them by now...?

(By the way, I started writing this comment then decided it would make a good blog, so almost exactly the same thing also appears here on Rational Parenting:
http://rationalparents.blogspot.com/ )

Comment by: Alice Bachini on February 15, 2003 01:15 PM

I'm a mathematics major, and I think it's a bit much to ask people to understand mathematics abstractly. I think Michael is right, some people don't care or want to understand mathematics unless it can be applied to something they're interested in. My brother (now in graduate school in chemical engineering) said that he learned more calculus in his chemistry courses than he did in his calculus courses. He certainly doesn't have as deep an understanding of calculus as I have, but he doesn't need it. He has no reason to know conceptually what the derivative or Riemann integral is (or what the Lebesgue integral is, etc.) All he needs to know is how to apply them successfully in chemistry. While I certainly think it's better to know about maths conceptually, it's pointless for 99% of what nonmathematicians use maths for, and teaching it that way is probably hopeless.

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on March 17, 2003 06:21 AM

poofs are gay, ur mums

Comment by: Phil McCrack on September 5, 2003 06:33 AM
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