Mathematics for all: Teach it or not?

CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, MATHEMATICS IS FAST BECOMING IRRELEVANT WITH THE ADVENT OF APPLICATION SOFTWARE TOOLS. IS IT TIME TO REVISE OUR CURRICULUM?

Few notions are as universally accepted as the importance and usefulness of maths education. We all agree that math helps us make day-to-day decisions – professional or otherwise. Parents worry when they see low maths grades in children’s’ report cards. Multiple Nobel laureates such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman have comprehensively detailed how math shapes the modern world in the era of scientific discovery. Galileo Galilei said he would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics, if he were to begin his studies again. You have heard it all.

My attempt is not to question the relevance of maths. That would be foolish. Mathematics is not just the queen
of sciences, it’s the queen of all fields of study. Mathematics has assisted in making the world what it is today and will continue to shape its future. The question is not even about maths education. That too should stay. This is about teaching maths for all. Should it be or shouldn’t?

My own schooling was during ‘70-‘80s, an era before computers. Certainly no mobile phones. Calculators weren’t common and discouraged at schools. We had to do all sums manually. My Grade 4 class teacher always encouraged us to do simple sums mentally. Like below.

“You want to buy a bunch of bananas. It has 16 bananas. Not 10, mind you – I am not going to make it easy for you. Let’s say one banana costs 20 cents. No, that makes the sum too easy. One banana is 23 cents. How much will the bunch cost? How much is 16 x 23?”

If we had a paper and pencil, this was how we did it: First, we multiply 16 by 3. Then we do 16 by 2. you write the two figures in their respective positions and add. But remember, we are at the market. No pencils and papers. How you do it mentally? She taught us to do the sum in four parts. First multiply 10 by 20. Store in memory. 200. Then multiply 10 by 3. Store. 30. Then multiply 6 by 20. Store. 120. Finally, multiply 6 by 3. Store. 18. Now add the four numbers you have stored in your memory (when you have practiced the method you can do the adding simultaneously with multiplications) – 200 + 30 + 120 + 18 = 368.

These kinds of maths skills are long forgotten. Young sales people reach for the calculator even when you buy five Rs50 data cards.

CAN WE BE HAPPY WHEN ONE AMONG EVERY THREE STUDENTS FAILS MATHS?

I am not complaining. A skill will be useful only when it can be applied in real life. Still-life painting skills were appreciated before the invention of the camera. Portrait painters of that age spent hours fine-tuning their masterpieces. Photography ruined those careers. Now we pay far more attention to photography and editing skills. Similarly, mental calculation skills aren’t necessary. Your smartphone, which accompanies you everywhere, has a calculator option. Why bother developing skills that add little value?

Calculators are not the only things that make mathematics skills unimportant. Mathematical skills are getting increasingly irrelevant in many other fields. Financial markets for instance. A few decades ago, maths was key to success. Millions of manual calculations were done daily to analyze investment trends. First software applications and now Artificial Intelligence (AI) is taking over. True, most algorithmic trading is not true Artificial Intelligence. For AI, there will be no randomness. This means AI will be able to predict the future fair value of any stock. Humans cannot challenge AI in this game. Whatever level their mathematical skills will be of little value. Even engineering, where maths was treated as the foundation, is transforming fast. Future engineers’ tools will not be a slide rule, a T- Square, a calculator or even a PC, as it is today. Intelligent software applications will take over. A future engineer will only be a button pusher waiting for a system far more intelligent than him/her to produce results. The maths underlying these is only relevant to those building these systems, and even they will be able to refer a textbook for the formulae. Even locally, the scenario is rapidly changing. Mathematics is now a prerequisite only for tertiary education in engineering and physical sciences. Even courses in Information Technology seek no previous advanced maths background, as they did earlier.

Should the sliding relevance of maths for a majority of students make the subject redundant?

The argument is not for completely giving up on maths as a subject. It is only to revisit school curriculum. Should all students continue to study the same syllabus that schools did for decades? Can there be multiple school syllabi depending on students’ future aspirations? (those who want to follow engineering can take a full dosage, sizable exceptions can be made for others.)

Then, what are the significant sections we can take out for all? Should students still study logarithms in detail? Should they study manual calculation in statistics? (A few minutes with Excel will provide the same outcome, if the student knows the concept but not the formulae). Should students still do manual constructions when graphics
software can easily do the same?

I propose this for a reason. Next to English, Mathematics is the subject that records lowest pass rates at the GCE (O/L) examination in Sri Lanka. Until 2015, pass rates were around 55%. Nearly half the students attempting the examinations fail to go through. Things have improved slightly since then with the same reaching nearly 70% in 2017. This isn’t satisfactory. Can we be happy when one among every three students fails maths?

This can easily be resolved if we look back with open eyes. Why teach students something unnecessary? Worse, why penalise them when they cannot meet the high standards meant for others?

If education policymakers take the suggestion seriously, it would be a great relief for both students and parents – especially in rural areas where maths and science teachers are scarce.