Last night Connor asked for some help with work he was doing on the mathematical proofs for triangle similarity.
Strangely, I have never, not once, had to use this knowledge myself since forgetting it immediately after the required subject test for it some thirty-odd years ago.
When Connor asked me, I couldn’t think of a single circumstance where I would ever even need to use this knowledge – maybe if I need to know the height of a tree?
Of course I see the value of maths to society. I see the value of it in many professions. I sometimes use moderately-advanced maths myself for various analysis tasks. What I am really struggling with is the value in learning something with a 99% probability of it never being used again (yes, I get the irony of this sentence!) simply to be able to pass a module test and then safely and comfortably forget it until the point in your life that your child asks for help with it before their subject test.
I couldn’t dredge up any memory of these proofs, other than residual feelings of fear and frustration. I knew that I had done them, but remembered nothing of them. But, I was able to do a quick search, watch a video and learn them in less than ten minutes well enough to teach Connor. What disturbed me however about this process is that Connor was not able to do that. He was so frustrated with beating his head against something he sees no point in, to sit a module test simply for the sake of the test, that he simply couldn’t learn it.
The simple answer perhaps would be to drop maths, or reduce it from his curriculum. For better or worse maths is the only subject we have mandated he study. This year he has completed the entire maths curriculum for what would, in school, be two years of national curriculum maths study. He has done that in less than two hours a week of study. We have done this because for some unknown to me reason the school systems seem to place a huge premium on maths ability as an indicator of achievement and we want to leave open the chance for him to easily return to the school system should he ever need or want to.
I see him using the knowledge and skills from his humanities studies every day. I have enjoyed the last ten months of having Connor more and more able to pick up references, make political judgments and connections to history etc. These studies are having an obvious impact on who he is as a person.
Maths, not so much. Unless maybe by way of dealing with boredom and pointlessness.
Every time I need to do some more advanced maths for finance calculations or data analysis etc., it never ceases to amaze me how effortless the learning process is (and for stuff that I do regularly, I retain it), compared to my experience in school. My musings then are not about the value of maths – I think that is obvious, but rather around the way we teach it. We force it, we shove it with no explanation other than “you have to do this” at kids. It has no relevance to them, or most of us.
Surely, natural learning is a better way to teach it? Connor is interested in economics at the moment. That interest will naturally lead him to learning and doing the related maths. If someone is interested in physics, that interest will lead them to learning what they need. Both students will learn different things, but so what?
Ironically, I need to go now and help Connor with some trigonometry. Apparently if he is going to sit for the SATs (unclear given the International Baccalaureate and other possible paths, but we don’t like shutting down future paths), maths as taught is required, so we have no choice but to force it on him the way the curriculum demands. Frustrating to say the least, when it seems clear that a natural need-based approach to it would yield much easier, and more relevant results.
This is something I want to give more thought to.