Is It Time To Ban Maths From Schools?

Yesterday I was involved in yet another discussion about whether we should be encouraging Faith Schools with Government Grants or banning them completely. Not so long ago another discussion in the same forum was about whether we should be trying to force fed pupils more maths or whether maths as taught in schools is a waste of time? The arguments followed a remarkably similar course which lends credibility to my contention that certain scientists treat science as a religion.

In the maths debate, mathematician Marcus de Sautoy opened for the pro maths side and demolished his own case in his first sentence, saying: “When Wayne Rooney takes a shot at goal he first does a simultaneous equation.”

I think not. Can you imagine Motty raving: “ And the ball goes to Rooney. He does an equation, he shoots, he scores.” The suggestion that Rooney even knows what an equation is stretches our credulity.

The reason I raise this is a new government report on education concludes that primary teachers are not good enough at maths to teach their pupils. I think fatsally might have a few things to say about that so we await her comments with baited breath.

When I had a quick look at a SATS examination paper aimed at eleven year olds it was clear at once that the problem lies not with teachers but with the people who control the curriculum, the maths academics. The tests are being set by the kind of fuckwits who find maths fascinating.

The problem with maths you see is there exists a small minority who think mathematics is the most interesting thing in the world and worth doing just for fun. Then there are the rest of us who are sane. Now the maths for fun brigade, who include most academic mathematicians, cannot understand why sane people do not share their enthusiasm. But these people would rather solve an equation than get laid so there you go.

To illustrate why maths is such a deeply unpopular subject for study here is a question from that maths test.

Steven makes between 30 and 50 biscuits. If he packs them in threes he has two left over and if he packs them in fives he has one left over. How many biscuits did Steven make.

So what does this question tell us about Steven? First, he hasn’t the sense he was born with, anybody with at least one functioning brain cell would just count the effing biscuits. Second, Steven suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A normal person would just tip the biscuits in a tin or a Tupperware box. The answer to the question then is who cares, Steven should try to get out more.

Only a person with the mindset of Roy Cropper from Coronation Street or Gordon Brown would pack the biscuits in threes or fives. And even they would just eat the spare ones instead of fretting over them. This leads us to think that Steven the biscuit maker is not simply a tad obsessive but might be autistic.

And what kind of message does that send to schoolkids about the desirability of learning maths.

The skill of the Mathematician lies in their ability to turn a very simple everyday situation into a very complex mathematical problem. Count the effing biscuits, fuckwits.

As Aristotle said: What we have to do we learn by doing. And many of us who daydreamed through maths lessons in school found in later life we could solve very complex arithmetic problems because we had a practical need to solve them.

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13 thoughts on “Is It Time To Ban Maths From Schools?

  1. At school maths was a mystery co sines logarithms, algebra quadratic equations, transformation of formulas…what was all that about. at 15 I joined the army as a boy soldier and to my horror we had to do math. not only do it but unless we passed it we would be out on our ear…so guess who shat himself to find one of the math topics to be transformation of formulas….might as well be Martian physics for all I understood.

    So the lesson came…but hold on we were paraded outside and marched to the bridging site where the teacher showed us an improvised bridge which would be something that we would be involved in as Sappers. He then explained the use of formulation transformation and showed what part of the bridge in was meant for…also the fact that if we got it wrong we would send people to there deaths.

    All of a sudden it had a purpose and then made sense.

    So what they need to do is teach the ground work of math to students and then once their career path is established teach them what is pertinent for the role…yes even footballers could benefit from this.

    Anyway it’s just a thought

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    1. Jack,
      A grammar school kid like my little sis fatsally, I absorbed little of the pure maths taught in the curriculum. My friends who went to local Secondary Moderns and thus were at best expected to take up Engineering apprenticeships or train as draughtsmen, were taught at a more tangible level. Never mind Pythagoras, how much weight will that hoist be able to lift if it needs to protrude six feet from the building. That sort of thing.

      Its marvellous how easy it becomes when related to something real.

      That bastard Pythagoras has a lot to answer for.

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  2. I tend to agree with you Jack. I got two maths o levels without ever really understanding what all these formulas were about. I just memorized them.

    Then one day someone explained that when Al Gebra was a man not a subject, it was thought it would be really useful to be able to lob a projectile over a city wall without getting in range of the defenders: so, how was the poor saps to know how far away they were or needed to be and how could they work out high the wall was. When I thought about it like that, some of it began to make sense.

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    1. Techonomist,
      Good point, though the people who loaded the mangonels and trebuchets with bundles of burning straw propably relied on guess work as the medieval church restricted study of mathematics.

      Arrrgh! Differential calculus, tis the work of the Devil.

      I think quite a few pupils in any school would agree with that.

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  3. It seems to me a lot of the problems with basic maths, the sort taught in primary schools not the algebra, trig and geom that we waded through in Grammar school, stem from when rote learning was sidelined in order to make Maths more fun. Add to that ‘The Numeracy Hour’ with it’s rigid format, and flitting about from one subject to another, so that in many cases there isn’t time to consolidate the children’s understanding and teachers who are unable to see beyond the boxes to be ticked.
    Basically it’s all a big mess and it will take more than one half arsed initiative to sort it out.

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  4. You know something needs doing when you’ve just explained, with examples, what the term ‘to four decimal places’ means to a degree level student.

    I mean, it’s bad enough when someone you’re working with can’t subtract even basic numbers but God’s Balls there’s just something wrong with degree level computer science types not knowing what a decimal place is.

    Meanwhile, not all mathematicians are inherently socially moronic, even if they do sometimes read books about imaginary numbers for the uninitiated just to pass the time 😮 But then I would say that, given one of the reasons I visit Sheffield on a regular basis 🙂

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  5. Steady on sir! My Daughter lives in Sheffield by choice (when she’s not travelling)

    I know how you feel – and I’m constantly amazed when I speak of my ability to do maths at a practical level but not academically, sciency types will say “ah well you worked in computers and everyone knows computers can only count up to two.”

    They can only count up to one actually.

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    1. Oh, I wasn’t criticising Sheffield in the least; I have many reasons for visiting once a month (or more) but since last year there’s an added reason with a 2:1 in mathematics and a worrying predilection for Asimov so they can’t all be bad. Of course, she has many redeeming features to counter the books on imaginary numbers (oh, who am I to talk, I have seven books on graphics programming subjects alone) including many things other than her breasts.

      Crap.

      I was going to leave those ’till last.

      Ah well, I’ll be spending the first weekend in July in Sheffield as it’s where I’d rather spend my 29th Birthday.

      As an asides, I’m pretty sure binary can count up to any multiple of ten like:
      1
      10
      100

      Ask any mathematician, 100(base 2) is still one hundred, even if the only numbers less than 100 are 1, 10 and 11.

      I’ll get me coat.

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      1. Paul,
        Binary can express any number decimal number as a binary string, a hundred; 1100100 i.e. 64+32+0+0+4+0+0.

        Think of a computer as being like one of those medieval water clocks. Tip a thimblefull of water into a container every second, when you have 60 thimblefuls and the container tips over and empties into the minutes bucket. Sixty of those and you have an hour.

        Computers work on that principle but with static. Charge a capacitor and you have 1. Tip another charge in and the capacitor discharges into the next. Obviouly they don’t keep piling up as with a water clock but the position in an 8, 16, 32 or 64 bit register betermines how the output device will present the data in terms humans can understand. Software may be immensely complex but the computer performs all its functions by compring three states – (negative, 1) + (positive, 0) and null which is the constant by which the others are recognised.

        So everything stored on all the comuters in the world is just ones and zeros. Its just humans that interpret them as having any meaning.

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      2. Oh, I know all that, last night was partly spent explaining all this to someone else who they didn’t get why inverting the last 8 bits of a 32 bit integer changed 300 into 467. Explaining bitwise OR and AND were another matter altogether.

        I was just being deliberately pedantic in the sense that 100 is only 4 when converted to decimal (or hex or octal for that matter) but that until then it’s still one hundred in base2 just as 100 in hex is only 256 in decimal but so long as it’s still in hex it’s one hundred (or one hundred million in base 2 🙂

        Yes, I do understand why no-one actually calls it one hundred :p there’s no point at which I’d seriously try to use such terminology.

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