What to say if your child asks, 'what's the point of maths?'

Kevin Larkin | First published: 1 December 2016, 19:11 IST

As a parent - or even teacher - you are likely to have been asked the question: "What's the point of maths?"

This is often followed by: "When will I ever use this stuff?" or "How will maths help me later in life?"

These questions, not often asked of other school subjects, indicate that for some children, maths is seen as something belonging only to school classrooms.

As parents it is not always easy to respond to questions such as these. Hopefully the answers provided below provide a way to start talking about maths.

The questions young people ask about maths often relate to their personal experience of how they found maths in school, rather than questions about maths per se.

Reports suggest that young people's negative attitudes towards maths are increasing, even as early as primary school. This is largely due to the maths being taught as a recipe.

If we do A then B then C we get the correct answer to a problem we didn't pose in the first place - and with little understanding of the ingredients.

My research indicates that some eight-year-olds already identify as "not being a maths type of person", with children using words such as "anger", "sadness", "hatred" and "boredom" to describe how they feel about maths.

'When will I ever use this stuff?'

Maths in schools is largely skills-based - such as learning how to determine internal angles of shapes or using formulas to determine volume or capacity - rather than a study of what mathematics actually is.

Mathematics is a study of patterns and a means of representing and describing the world in terms of quantities, shapes, and relationships. This means that for many students, their understanding of mathematics is completing tasks set by a teacher rather than developing their own understanding of angles or volume or capacity.

An analogy I use with university students is that mathematics skills can be likened to playing a piano (keys, notes, strings, hammers). But knowing the parts of a piano does not make someone Mozart. Likewise, knowing facts, formulas, and rules, while very important, do not make someone a mathematician.

Broadening the experience of maths beyond the completion of worksheets presents the subject as interesting, relevant and engaging. It also has long-term economic impacts for productivity and employment opportunities.

Teachers could look for opportunities for students to use maths beyond the prescribed daily lesson (for example, location and orientation activities while playing sport, or patterning while learning music, or using perspective in visual arts).