Numbers: Hocus-Pocus or Neglected Staple?

It’s easy to forget our nation’s history at times, given the average person’s attitude towards numbers. In general, people would sooner hold their heads in faux-confusion than mentally engage with a mathematical problem. Britain has a long-established history as having produced some of the greatest mathematical minds to grace the modern world. Among them are Sir Isaac Newton and Alan Turing, together responsible for great cornerstones such as the Theory of Gravitation, Calculus and modern computing, the latter even helping to turn the tide of war at Bletchley Park by cracking the infamous Enigma Code.

But mathematicians are far from the sole benefiters of the world of numbers. The field of mathematics is integral to a great many fields of study. Without it, bridges would fail, planes would remain grounded, the banks would cast money into the streets in a fit of confusion and your iPhone would resolutely remain a brick of inanimate circuitry.

Modern technology is almost entirely dependent on mathematical processes that a mere sliver of the population are even aware of, let alone understand. With algorithms beyond the scope of a mere degree in the subject running social facets from Google searches to managing a building’s air conditioning, we are surrounded by bustling programs that are becoming only more complex.

Maths is, unfortunately for some, the language of nature; a tool, without which western civilisation would be inert and impotent. If that is so, then you would expect such a thing to be prioritised by the education system. This, however, is far from the truth.

With Department of Education aiming to revamp the mathematics syllabus in primary schools, with a particular emphasis on the infamous Times Tables, as well as a reported increase in students taking Maths and Science A-Levels this year, it certainly seems that headway is being made with tackling the issue.

However, is the problem too deep-rooted to be dealt with by anything less than major changes to national attitude and the manner in which maths is taught in the UK?

As somebody who has privately tutored maths students for three years, from ages eleven to seventeen, I can report that failings in mathematics seem to stem from a single source; that of their syllabus, not in content but in structure. Judith Burns has reported for the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19217813) a key point made in the National Numeracy letter sent to Michael Gove; that key topics in maths are being ‘atomised’ in primary education, which is very much in-keeping with what I’ve observed.

A favourite example of mine is the Pythagoras Theorem, a basic geometric rule that never ceases to ring bells in the mind’s of people who have long forgotten their school years. I have asked each of my tutees about it during an introductory session, and I’ve unfailingly received the same answer. “A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared.” It rolls right off their tongue. Very well done indeed.

But I follow that question up with another; “What does that mean?”

Lo and behold, there descends the expression of abject confusion. None of them have ever given me an answer other than something along the lines of, “Err, I’m not sure.”

This confusion stems from the attitude of ‘don’t worry about it, just memorise it and regurgitate it in the exam’ mentality that pervades the education system. Students are fairly accustomed to the idea that true understanding is a superfluous detail, and that merely re-stating something you have been told is sufficient to pass exams. A detailed and informed answer lays the basis for the likes of A-grade students only.

Students across key-stages often struggle despite having no trouble at all with reciting the details of their syllabus. The problem is that individual concepts are taught to students without attention being paid to their applications and how they relate to other concepts. In fact, the history and foundations of mathematics are entirely neglected, leaving students to be introduced to topics as though they were plucked from the ether, without a thought for derivation or underlying principles.

Universities have now started complaining en-mass about the lack of understanding of mathematical foundations found in its students. Whilst this is to be somewhat expected from students of the so-called ‘soft sciences’ such as sports science and forensic science (as universities often do not demand that mathematics be taken beyond GCSE level for these subjects), the problem is even evident in students of Engineering, Computer Science and the three classical sciences; fields which, by and large, simply cannot be understood fully without a firm grasp of mathematics. In fact, to study such a thing as, for example, Mechanical Engineering without such a grasp is comparable to trying to build a house without any tools.

The problems don’t stop there. Even employers are now reported that graduates don’t possess the necessary skills to operate effectively in the workplace.

But does this really matter? Can we not let the algebra slide if technology is making our lives easier and easier? Could we not phase out human intervention as machines advance to the point that they could carry out the necessary tasks themselves?

The great disciplines of engineering, electronics and computing are at more of a crossroads than ever, facilitated by our dear friend maths, bringing us marvel after marvel. However, whilst we enjoy the spoils of our technological society, tapping away at smartphones and IPads, trouble brews on the horizon.

Our society is ageing. With fewer people than ever studying technical degrees, there will come a point in the not-too-distant future when the specialists currently keeping the world spinning will retire, leaving a vacuum in their wake. There simply won’t be enough graduates to replace them, and beyond that societal event horizon there be dragons.

Perhaps artificial intelligences and automation will have advanced to such a point that technical education is unnecessary, and we will all live in blissful ignorance without any need for such specialists as our every need is catered for by our faithful, shiny servants. Until something breaks, of course, and our witless descendants desperately prostrate themselves before the Wise Coffeemaker and beg for espresso.

Alternatively, as a society we could stagnate, or merely be consumed and cared for by the nations who don’t share such a move away from vocational disciplines; Japan and the US, most notably. We could even end up regressing to an early twentieth-century level of technology, when anybody could take any machine apart and, due to the fact that everything operated via mechanical moving parts, figure out how it operated without any significant theoretical knowledge.

These examples are extreme, but not absurd. A move away from the language of nature is a step away from civilisation.

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