*Although my focus in this post is Key Stage 3 and 4 maths in UK secondary schools, some of what I have to say may well apply to other phases and other places too.*

I realise I have been remiss. Some time ago, I started this blog claiming it would contain thoughts about maths, but I have never actually defined what I mean by that! I think I’m far from alone in this – throughout the blogosphere it’s very common to talk about well-used terms and concepts without ever unpacking exactly what is being talked about. So I thought I’d devote a short entry to what I mean when I use the word “maths”.

There are two categories of activity that “maths” as I use the term falls into. Firstly, there is what some people might call functional maths – making sense of number, graphical data, statistics, money, measurement… all the skills that young people need to master in order to function in society when they leave school (or the skills that young people need to master in order to access mathematics in higher education or within their career, for that matter!) Secondly, I use the word “maths” when I’m talking about an activity which involves such skills as working systematically, looking for and explaining patterns, generalising, and proving those generalisations.

I think both of these types of activity are important – maths shouldn’t be an either/or thing; maths classrooms can involve both sorts of “maths”, and in fact one particular maths lesson might be targetting skills from both sets. I think denying children either would be wrong, and saying “these children only need functional maths because they are never going to be professional mathematicians” perpetuates a mis-understanding within society of what maths is, and what mathematicians do. We should make sure that all children have the chance to explore, conjecture, and prove, and to know that these ideas are at the heart of what mathematics is all about. So I think when I think of the word “maths”, it’s the second meaning that jumps to my mind first.

When you use the word “maths”, what do you mean by it? Have you ever come across anyone who thinks about and defines “maths” in a completely different way from you?

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2010 at 16:22 and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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October 18, 2010 at 18:00 |

Excellent. You are quite right.

October 18, 2010 at 18:04 |

I agree with you completely, Alison. So often people say to me that they are no good at maths or that they hate maths. They might be surprised when I say that my job involves mathematics and that I rather like it.

However, I am not sure that, when I am having such conversations, we are talking about the same thing. Many people’s experience of maths is so different from what you describe above and this is such a shame.

October 21, 2010 at 08:11 |

And how many times do we do activities that make students say “but this isn’t maths” YES IT IS!!

There’s more to maths then numbers and algebra and statistics!

October 23, 2010 at 21:26 |

I’m reminded of the “school failures” who claim to have zero maths ability.

But give them £5 to place on a horse, and they will tell you, to the peny what you’ll get for a win or a place (betting tax included) for any odds!

Also, watch people at the pub looking at patterns in numbers when playing darts…. I have to do arithmetic to know that 90 = double top and a bull, or that, say, 77 is a top and a triple 19, they just KNOW! (but they say they are no good at maths or arithmetic!)

October 25, 2010 at 07:37 |

[…] should be compulsory after the age of 13, and spurred on by Alison’s question of what we mean by maths thought that I’d share my thoughts here. It’s somewhat of a more formal post than […]

March 1, 2014 at 15:44 |

[…] should be compulsory after the age of 13, and spurred on by Alison’s question of what we mean by maths thought that I’d share my thoughts here. It’s somewhat of a more formal post than […]