Mandatory Maths

You’ve probably seen a proposal made by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to extend the mandatory study of mathematics up to age 18 for all students in the United Kingdom. This proposal is intended to address concerns about the mathematical skills of the UK workforce, and to improve the competitiveness of the country in fields that rely heavily on maths, such as technology and science.

Reactions vary. Simon Jenkins argues that the focus on maths education has led to a neglect of subjects like geography, history, computer literacy and practical skills. He criticises the focus on standardised testing and argues that the success of other countries, such as the US, does not depend on a strong maths education.

Kit Yates argues that maths is already popular among students and it would be better to demonstrate its relevance and importance, rather than forcing students to take it. He also questions the feasibility of the policy given the current shortage of maths teachers and lack of funding for sixth forms and further education colleges which would be responsible for implementing the plan.

You may have also seen the altogether less likely appearance of Simon Pegg, who also questions the neglect of other subjects like arts and humanities, but this time suggesting that many students do not like mathematics and do not require it. He goes on to suggest the plan will foster a society of a, well, drone army of data-entering robots. So there’s that.

The whole thing reminds me of a minor furore last autumn about the place of mandatory calculus education in science and other mathematically adjacent subjects.

The author of the piece linked above, Robert C. Thornett, argues that the majority of people who take calculus courses learn little about what it is actually for:

[Andrew] Hacker says one of the most common arguments colleges make for maintaining calculus requirements is that they put “rigor” into the curriculum. But he argues that there is no evidence that calculus involves any unique rigor. To which I would add that the perceived difficulty of calculus is due largely to the way it is taught, which is highly fragmented, abstract, and divorced from its real-world applications. Students often learn very little about what calculus is actually used for. They are taught to memorize long series of steps in which they manipulate symbols and numbers to produce an answer that has very little meaning to them. Even students who pass calculus with flying colors often leave with little understanding of what the purpose of calculus is—which, ironically, is the most important thing they need to know about calculus.

He uses this to further his argument that calculus courses for those students ought to be replaced by statistics courses as they provide skills to interpret data and make better real-life decisions.

This specific point doesn’t make Thornett’s argument stronger. It reframes it, revealing instead the root cause as a crisis in teaching—backed up by Kit Yates’s comments—rather than any great panic about whether there ought be a requirement for secondary-level maths or calculus in higher levels of education.

Sunak’s proposals would address a symptom rather than the underlying problem. Mathematics can be both beautiful and practical—hell, well taught well, it can even be fun. It is rarely a good idea to teach subjects for their economic value. The purpose for learning them should be made clear to the student by the teacher. I’m reminded of Pamela Hieronymi, Professor of Philosophy at UCLA, who notes that education is not the transmission of information or ideas—it is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. We need to fund more and better teachers to ensure that happens, not put extra stress on the teachers who are already in place, underpaid and far too stretched.