Is it an abstract subject that develops analytical thinking,or a utilitarian subject?by / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
This is the full-length version of a letter that appeared in our August 2016 issue. It is a response to a recent Prospect piece in which Marcus Du Sautoy explained what he would do if he ruled the world.
Marcus du Sautoy exposes the confusion in society’s expectations of maths teaching (“If I ruled the world”, June). Is it an abstract subject that develops analytical thinking or a utilitarian subject that helps us navigate the practicalities of life? Ideally of course it is both, with a bridge between the two: thinking analytically helps solve everyday problems. But so often it fails on both counts, with too many young people leaving school hating the subject and functionally barely numerate.
Du Sautoy is clear about his view. Maths is the key to the universe and children should be encouraged to appreciate its power, beauty and creativity. As an Oxford professor of mathematics and of the public understanding of science, he couldn’t be expected to think otherwise. Much as I would have loved to have had Euclid’s proof of the infinity of prime numbers explained to me when I was doing O-level maths, pragmatically I believe the emphasis must be on equipping all children (not just those going on to further maths or science study) with the practical skills they need for life.