It’s time to rethink the way we are talking about maths

 

Last week, Labour MP and Shadow Secretary for Education, Kate Green, proclaimed “we don’t want children doing maths at five and six in the evening”. This statement reinforces the stereotypical poor reputation of maths and people’s fear of not having the right answers. If you ask a random sample of people for their opinion about the subject, everyone will give a different answer. Of course, there will inevitably be those who did not enjoy maths at school and have a fear of numbers. It is, most commonly, these voices that are raised the loudest and we hear repeatedly. However, there is another set of voices: those who thoroughly enjoyed maths at school. These voices need to be raised and heard in equal measure.

Who wants to do maths in the evening?

I understand that not everyone loves every subject. After finishing A-Level Chemistry, I was more than happy to never set foot in a lab again. However, maths seems to be unique in its societal acceptance of being derided. Nevertheless, it is those who work in mathematics, statistics and data science that allow us all to see the world through different eyes. In a world that’s becoming more complicated by the second, it’s maths that helps us make sense of how things work and leads us to solve problems that seem unsolvable.

Fighting against the “who wants to do maths in the evening” viewpoint, I think it’s important to talk about what maths is not.
It isn’t a series of rules that you have to learn by rote. Nor a subject that focuses on moving letters and numbers on either side of an equals sign. Critically, it most definitely is not a subject where you should fear getting the answer wrong. The truth is those who work in mathematical sciences are wrong most of the time. It’s not something we’re ashamed of.  As frustrating as it is when an approach hasn’t worked, we start again with a different idea.

Maths as a mechanism for switching off.

My job allows me time to do lots of different things: maths, coding, business development to name just a few.  At the end of the day, I’ll switch off by solving puzzles. Working on a puzzle is absorbing, (there’s no enjoyment if you try and cheat to get the answer) but it also often leads to me being creative in other ways. For instance, having a good idea to try out the next day, or sketching how to visualise a result.

Let’s not mix up arguments about the length of the school day with negative stereotypes of subjects. Instead, let’s raise the voices of those who work in a field that underpins large portions of the UK economy, supports scientific developments, helps solve societal challenges and brings joy into the lives of so many.

By Sophie Carr