Why do we need maths? – The Guardian

By Maths Doctor Monday, March 5, 2012

This article has been taken from The Guardian – Comment Is Free and has been written by Matt Parker. You can view the original article here.

From protecting ourselves against useless insurance plans to creating computer games, numeracy is essential for our society.

A report out today highlights government figures that 49% of the UK working-age population do not have the numeracy levels expected from an 11-year-old. The National Numeracy charity point out that the percentage of the workforce with insufficient numeracy skills has gone from 47% to 49% in eight years, an increase of nearly 2 million people. Putting aside questions about how 2% of the UK’s workforce of less than 60 million people can be almost 2 million, it’s undoubtedly a lot of people. But the question is: should we care?

I think we should, but for completely selfish reasons. Most campaigns for numeracy focus on the fact that a functional level of numeracy is required to survive in our modern world. Which I have no doubt is true – unless we have students leaving school with both maths skills and the confidence to use them, they will struggle in the workplace and with all things financial.

The recent payment protection insurance (PPI) problem could have been avoided if more people had the mathematical confidence to check the numbers behind the insurance they were being sold. If anyone had taken the time to calculate the total premiums for PPI, they would have seen that the insurance cost more than the possible payout if they ever claimed. Banks relied on customers not having the confidence to check their numbers.

It’s also true that students benefit from not just numeracy skills and the confidence to use them, but also the mathematical thinking skills that they develop. Learning maths is not merely about the content.

Very few people will need to solve a quadratic equation during their normal day-to-day life. What people will use, though, are the sorts of complex thinking skills and problem-solving techniques that schools maths trains you in.

All of these benefits to the individual are great, but that’s not why innumeracy levels worry me. I’m worried because a workforce with insufficient maths skills means I’ll have less future technology to play with.

All the technology around us was developed by mathematically skilled engineers and scientists utilising techniques and ideas developed by mathematicians. If there had not been a mathematically skilled workforce in the past, we might not have the computers, internet and mobile phones we take for granted today. The UK could have a strong computer games industry contributing to a growing economy, but games companies consistently complain that they cannot hire enough games developers with the required maths skills to build modern computer games. It is certainly not the only such industry to suffer.

So we need to do something about numeracy rates in the UK. We need to have more enthusiastic maths teachers in schools inspiring students and we need more parents not giving their offspring the “I was never good at maths either” readymade excuse, and instead supporting them in learning a difficult subject. Not because successfully studying mathematics at school will benefit them for the rest of their lives, but because it gives us all a stronger economy and more fun tech-toys to play with.