Is the mathematics you learn in school really needed in everyday life?

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Poll: Do you think the maths you learned at school is useful in your everyday life?
Yes (242)
50.73%
No (235)
49.27%
University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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It seems like we live in a world where all the calculations we need are done for us. We have automated supermarket checkouts to tell us how much we need to pay for our shopping, we carry gps phones in our pockets to work out optimal routes for us, and price comparison sites find us the cheapest possible deals on holidays and many other things.

Our world is very different from the way it was when a lot of the mathematics we teach in school was invented. The ancient Babylonians had methods for solving (some) quadratic equations and also knew about Pythagoras's theorem about a thousand years before he was born.

I need to know a lot about mathematics for my job, but that's certainly not true for everyone. What do you think about the mathematics we teach at schools? Should we be covering different topics? Should we teach it at all? How much mathematics do you use outside the classroom?



My name is William Lee and I teach maths to students studying for the BSc Mathematics degree at the University of Huddersfield. I also work a lot on developing mathematical models in collaboration with industry, helping them uncover hidden meaning in their data and better understand how their processes work and can be improved.
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Joinedup
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It's useful to be able to estimate e.g. notice if the supermarket 'meal deal' has triggered or not and not just be dependent on the till being able to add up correctly. it's very unlikely a microprocessor system will actually do it's sums wrong - but it's also pulling in data from a back-end database and those always contain a bit of rubbish
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University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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That's a good point. When I shop I try to keep a running total in my head (rounded to the nearest pound or so). I also like to check the per item price when I'm buying things like dishwasher tablets.

I do find it annoying when I'm told I have to go and buy something extra to get the meal deal discount. I'm trying to lose weight so there is a reason why I didn't try to buy crisps in the first place!
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vicvic38
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I reckon you understand this, but the skills learned in maths should, in theory, extend far beyond standard numeracy. It's not properly taught in secondary education, but maths should really teach three main things to the modern student:

1) How to parse and extract information from a general problem, then add things you already know to find a solution. Mathematicians should become very adept at this.

2) How to logically structure an argument.

3) How to generalise and adapt knowledge from one area into another. Mathematicians have been seen to be better at this than say, physicists. In The Case Against Education, Bryan Caplan talks about a study done in the states. The participants are given two problems, one maths problem and one physics problem. Both problems are fundamentally the same thing, just the maths one is obviously a pared down version of the physics one. Some of the participants are given the maths problem first, and some the physics problem. They find that far more of the Maths first subjects are able to apply what they learnt from the first problem into the second, than the physics first ones.
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University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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I would definitely agree that maths is more than just numeracy, to me it is much more of a way of thinking about the world. Colleagues of mine prefer to call it a language.Those are definitely skills I try to teach my students! (The Case Against Education sounds like a really interesting book - I'll add it to my reading list.) I'd be very interested in your thoughts on the extent to which those skills are useful or essential in everyday life, and also whether we should be teaching mathematics in a different way to promote them?
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Anonymous #1
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It should not be compulsory to learn all topics. Only topics like basic sums, money problems, percentages etc. These things help you in daily life. But there are more useless topics in maths GCSE that is compulsory than there are useful. I passed my GCSE maths and the only thing that has helped me in my life was the basic sums and percentages.
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University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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(Original post by Anonymous)
It should not be compulsory to learn all topics. Only topics like basic sums, money problems, percentages etc. These things help you in daily life. But there are more useless topics in maths GCSE that is compulsory than there are useful. I passed my GCSE maths and the only thing that has helped me in my life was the basic sums and percentages.
Thank you very much for sharing your experience. If I went outside my professional life I'd agree that that the only calculations I use are those kind of topics. But I wonder if maths has also taught me a mathematical way of thinking that I use outside my work without even noticing.

For example, when I have a lecture in the morning I always make sure I take an earlier train so that if that train is cancelled I have a backup train. I expect that's partly because I'm a worrier, but maybe without noticing I've also estimated the probability that the train will be cancelled and decided it is very high.
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(Original post by University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer)
Thank you very much for sharing your experience. If I went outside my professional life I'd agree that that the only calculations I use are those kind of topics. But I wonder if maths has also taught me a mathematical way of thinking that I use outside my work without even noticing.

For example, when I have a lecture in the morning I always make sure I take an earlier train so that if that train is cancelled I have a backup train. I expect that's partly because I'm a worrier, but maybe without noticing I've also estimated the probability that the train will be cancelled and decided it is very high.
I’m like that too but don’t really think that has much to do with mathematical thinking. It’s just smart thinking. If you know that it’s been cancelled a few times before then you would really use your brain and leave early. I think English has taught me logic more than anything.
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University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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Fair enough and my train into Huddersfield has been cancelled more than a few times, so maybe it's spotting the obvious rather than smart thinking! I certainly wouldn't dare to suggest that logic is exclusively taught in a mathematics class. But I quite like what Jordan Ellenberg said in his book "How not to be wrong" that "Math is like an atomic powered prosthesis you can attach to your common sense." But I do wonder if there is a way in which maths could be taught to bring that aspect out more.
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vicvic38
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(Original post by University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer)
I would definitely agree that maths is more than just numeracy, to me it is much more of a way of thinking about the world. Colleagues of mine prefer to call it a language.Those are definitely skills I try to teach my students! (The Case Against Education sounds like a really interesting book - I'll add it to my reading list.) I'd be very interested in your thoughts on the extent to which those skills are useful or essential in everyday life, and also whether we should be teaching mathematics in a different way to promote them?
Your colleagues wouldn't happen to dabble in model theory, would they? Haha.

There's a lot of focus further down the chain on setting up students to follow procedure on a problem. For example, in a GCSE or A Level exam, there are only so many ways they can ask about a certain topic, so the best way to revise for those exams is to just learn off by heart the way they give information in questions. I don't really know how you'd fix that (because it's by and large the same at Degree level exams) however it might be interesting to help students build a logical base for a lot more of what they are doing, like they do in eastern Europe. They build proof skills from a very early age, so while they don't so much do a lot of probability, stats or mechanics, they come out on top in terms of logical thinking and constructing all sorts of proofs.

Maybe split the GCSE like the A level is. Make it so there is Maths, and then a Maths for Mathematicians course, which focuses on the construction of elementary proof. Them make A level Further Maths the same as that.
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University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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(Original post by vicvic38)
Your colleagues wouldn't happen to dabble in model theory, would they? Haha.
They mostly work on networks.

I like your idea of splitting up the maths GCSE. What topics would you put in the maths for non-mathematicians course?
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Good morning everyone. We're talking about mathematics taught at schools and how useful it is in everyday life. There is support for basic arithmetic: an anonymous user finds sums, money problems and percentages useful, while user Joinedup uses estimates while shopping at a supermarket.

User vicvic38 argues that mathematics should teach far more than basic numeracy but more a general and logical approach to problem solving. Vicvic38 thinks we should be teaching more of these skills and place less emphasis on learning procedures. However, our anonymous contributor points out that smart and logical thinking is taught in other classes too.

What do you think?

I'd love to hear from someone who uses other areas of mathematics, such as geometry or probability, outside the classroom. If you've found that studying mathematics has improved your logical thinking skills please do get in touch. Is there a useful mathematical topic we don't teach enough of in schools?
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Puddles the Monkey
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I wish I'd learned more basic maths.

It feels like a big hole in my life and I often run in to day to day situations where I know WHAT I want to do, but I just can't do it :rofl: Especially around percentages and fractions.

jenhasdreams has tried to explain things to me using loads of pens and pencils and moving them around :lol: (I've forgotten what I was trying to understand now though).
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Andalusi
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(Original post by University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer)
It seems like we live in a world where all the calculations we need are done for us. We have automated supermarket checkouts to tell us how much we need to pay for our shopping, we carry gps phones in our pockets to work out optimal routes for us, and price comparison sites find us the cheapest possible deals on holidays and many other things.

Our world is very different from the way it was when a lot of the mathematics we teach in school was invented. The ancient Babylonians had methods for solving (some) quadratic equations and also knew about Pythagoras's theorem about a thousand years before he was born.

I need to know a lot about mathematics for my job, but that's certainly not true for everyone. What do you think about the mathematics we teach at schools? Should we be covering different topics? Should we teach it at all? How much mathematics do you use outside the classroom?



My name is William Lee and I teach maths to students studying for the BSc Mathematics degree at the University of Huddersfield. I also work a lot on developing mathematical models in collaboration with industry, helping them uncover hidden meaning in their data and better understand how their processes work and can be improved.
I studied a lot of math at University as electrical engineer....a lot math i dont use now at work etc.....for me math at university is just to show employer Hey, you see, i can learn difficult stuff, hire me, i can learn your difficult stuff at work like i learned difficult math at univeristy.

i am more intrested in math now than when i was student, i want to learn math stuff more deeply, why some formulas work how they do, and do visualize math....like this teacher....all teacher needs to be like this
Videos










such visualized Math is soooooooo fun compared how they teach at schools and universities.
Last edited by Puddles the Monkey; 3 weeks ago
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Andalusi
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(Original post by University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer)
It seems like we live in a world where all the calculations we need are done for us. We have automated supermarket checkouts to tell us how much we need to pay for our shopping, we carry gps phones in our pockets to work out optimal routes for us, and price comparison sites find us the cheapest possible deals on holidays and many other things.

Our world is very different from the way it was when a lot of the mathematics we teach in school was invented. The ancient Babylonians had methods for solving (some) quadratic equations and also knew about Pythagoras's theorem about a thousand years before he was born.

I need to know a lot about mathematics for my job, but that's certainly not true for everyone. What do you think about the mathematics we teach at schools? Should we be covering different topics? Should we teach it at all? How much mathematics do you use outside the classroom?



My name is William Lee and I teach maths to students studying for the BSc Mathematics degree at the University of Huddersfield. I also work a lot on developing mathematical models in collaboration with industry, helping them uncover hidden meaning in their data and better understand how their processes work and can be improved.
William , i want to have a discussion with you about something i found in math, something extraordinary, yet it is simple but troughly extraordinary, i want you to analyze it and give me your opinion about it, is it ok for you????
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jenhasdreams
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(Original post by Puddles the Monkey)
I wish I'd learned more basic maths.

It feels like a big hole in my life and I often run in to day to day situations where I know WHAT I want to do, but I just can't do it :rofl: Especially around percentages and fractions.

jenhasdreams has tried to explain things to me using loads of pens and pencils and moving them around :lol: (I've forgotten what I was trying to understand now though).
Oh I vaguely remember that! yeah you had loads of pens you brought over lol. What WAS that
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University of Huddersfield Guest Lecturer
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(Original post by Puddles the Monkey)
I wish I'd learned more basic maths.

It feels like a big hole in my life and I often run in to day to day situations where I know WHAT I want to do, but I just can't do it :rofl: Especially around percentages and fractions.

jenhasdreams has tried to explain things to me using loads of pens and pencils and moving them around :lol: (I've forgotten what I was trying to understand now though).
Theres a great quote by Charles Darwin

I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense
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DiddyDec
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A lot of what I learnt in school has never been used, whether is is Pythagoras, quadratic equations or anything beyond relatively basic maths. A lot of the harder sections of GCSE maths has been replaced by technology.

If I need to work out an angle or the length of a line I can throw it into Sketchup or Vectorworks and it will give me to exact answer. Floor areas and volume can be solved by 3D modelling which is not that hard to do and in modern design I can run in all in 2D and it will give me the 3D solutions.

The old "you won't have a calculator in your pocket" couldn't be further from the truth now. I use my phone calculator just as much as I do excel to do calculations.

The curriculum needs to focus on more practical applications rather than abstract algebra which by in large is utterly useless in the current format. I do use algebra to write Excel and Mail Merge formulas but none of this was ever taught at school, we briefly touched on it at university but not in any meaningful way.

I was one of the children at school that actually enjoyed maths but as the years went by I struggled to see the point as it was never useful maths, just learning for the sake of ticking boxes.
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Sinnoh
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Yes... because I'm a physics student. :lol:

Jokes aside probably my favourite application of maths I've used is in video games, working out probabilities of rare drops in Runescape. e.g. If the probability of obtaining a unique item from the Barrows minigame is 1/17.4, what's the probability that I'll go 50 runs without getting anything, or what's the probability that I get 5 items in 100 runs or fewer
If I went a bit further with it I could work out upper and lower bounds of money gained per hour.

Some of the algebra you learn at school is helpful for mental maths, such as expanding double brackets
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Puddles the Monkey
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(Original post by jenhasdreams)
Oh I vaguely remember that! yeah you had loads of pens you brought over lol. What WAS that
It was working out the overlap of something and avoiding double counting... it was breaking my brain :rofl: The pens didn't help!
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