If you ask any group of schoolchildren which subject they hate most, maths is always one of the most common responses. Little wonder then that a recent survey conducted by City & Guilds found that a third of all teenagers see maths as difficult, boring or irrelevant.
Generations of children have long uttered the cry of despair: ‘when am I ever going to need algebra in real life?’ and drop the subject from their studies at the first possible opportunity.
With the number of pupils studying maths at a higher level in decline, and the science and engineering industries suffering as a result, everyone is looking for ways to help children understand and enjoy maths. Top of the list of suggestions is getting the subject to make more use of real-world examples.
However, instead of just focusing on making maths more relevant, it would be even better to focus on making maths more fun. There are thousands of maths-based games and puzzles that will intrigue, fascinate and captivate children of all ages. Establishing early on that maths can be fun, rather than dreary, would help students sustain an interest in the subject in later life.
As has been mentioned, there have been calls for the curriculum to be changed so that maths lessons teach more practical skills, such as those needed by those wanting to go into business for themselves. However, although the idea of making the teaching of maths more relevant to the lives of students is a solid one, it partly misses the point.
One of the most important things about learning maths – and about learning algebra in particular – is that it teaches logic, reason and problem solving in a way no other subject can.
In essay-based subjects such as history or English, there are right and wrong answers but there are many grey areas in-between. A strong, well-presented argument, even if it is badly flawed, can still score good marks.
With maths, however, you either have the right answer or you do not. Furthermore, if you have the right answer but simply guessed or came to it using an incorrect method, you will lose marks as a result. Learning maths teaches you the value of following one logical step after another, and that virtually every problem has a solution.
The fact that many problems have only a single solution and, at least with the kind of maths taught in schools, you can usually tell if your answer is correct or not, mean that maths can produce a strong sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in those pupils who are willing to work at the subject.
Such lessons have enormous value in all walks of life and are hugely important in shaping attitudes towards the challenges we all face. Focusing on these benefits rather than simply teaching students how to check a bank statement, work out a foreign exchange rate or choose the best APR for a loan could help convince many more sceptical students to continue with maths; especially when most of these tasks are well within the capabilities of even the weakest pupils.
Written by Sam Luther, an experienced blogger with a background of working in independent schools.