Maths: When will I ever use this?

May 05, 2020

When will I ever use this? It’s a question famously asked by Maths students and dreaded by Maths teachers. Yet I believe it’s an important one to understand, both for students and teachers, and so I thought I’d share my view on the subject.

There are three answers that come to mind when I think of this question. These can be split roughly into:

1. “Here are some examples of when you may use this…”

2. “You’re right, you probably won’t, but think about the other skills you are developing…”

3. “You’re right, you probably won’t, but being confident with maths keeps a lot of opportunities open…”.

I’ve been fortunate, or unfortunate you might say, to see Maths in action regularly in my work. Alongside basic algebra, which appears everywhere, many ideas from secondary-school mathematics appear in academic research (monitoring volcanoes with seismic energy in my case), and in working as a data scientist.

My favourite personal example of applying maths comes from developing games as a side-hobby. In one particular football game, I designed and built a lot of the core functionality using basic trigonometry learned in GCSE maths; who would have thought!

As such, I’ve often thought the first answer was the best way to respond to this question. I could just draw from my own experiences, right?

Well… not quite. It’s pretty tough to have an example ready for every single topic, and you’ll quickly end up fighting a losing battle. You’re also not going to win over students with stories of applied maths if they’re convinced they’ll never venture into numerical subject areas.

This is where the second answer shines. After all, why does Maths have to be different from any other subject? In English, we teach students to analyse specific books; yet, you don’t often hear students asking “when will I ever apply my analysis of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ to my everyday life?”.

There’s an understanding in English that outside of the specific subject matter, we are improving our ability to write, read, communicate, and be creative. For some, the specific exercises may be important, if you’re pursuing journalism or novel writing for example, but for many student’s this isn’t the case.

So what are the life skills we learn in Maths? Well, I can’t think of many better subjects than Maths to teach problem-solving and logical thinking!

Many Maths problems ask students to perform multiple operations to find a missing value or answer. This process of determining first what information you have already, what information you need to get to the answer, and the tools you’ll need to get there is a crucial life skill that deserves attention.

Let’s take a simple problem of trying to decide whether you can walk to the shops in time before it rains. To answer this question, we need to know a few things.

First, how long does it take to get to the shops? Perhaps you know this already, or maybe you’ll seek this information out by thinking about the distance and average walking speed (or, more likely, Google Maps). Second, when is it expected to rain? You might decide to look at a rain radar map, or perhaps you’ll visually inspect the clouds outside to get a rough gauge of likelihood. If it looks like you won’t make it, perhaps you can think about cycling instead of walking. How much time would you save by cycling? And is this enough? You get the idea.

My point is that we do this kind of problem-solving daily without even acknowledging we are doing it; yet, that doesn’t make it any less important a skill. This kind of analytical approach is practiced each time we do Maths! It just looks slightly different when the subject matter is a geometric or algebraic problem. I, therefore, propose we start thinking of Maths as the ultimate brain-training course for problem-solving.

So where does that leave us? Going back to the original question of “when will I ever use this?”, I believe the best answer lies in a combination of the first and second answers. It’s great if you can include examples of applied maths in lessons, and I would encourage teachers/tutors to seek these out! But we shouldn’t forget the broader skills that are going to be relevant to all students, not just those who move into numerical careers.

The last option is one that speaks to my own personal experiences, and barriers I have seen others face.

It’s not always obvious what career you want to pursue at a young age. Our interests change over time as we evolve, and you never know where your next passion will come from.

Having confidence in your Maths ability leaves a lot of doors open and, for me, it has provided the flexibility to explore different options. More importantly, though, I’ve witnessed a lack of maths confidence become a barrier, with people deciding not to pursue a new interest at the first appearance of the word ‘Maths’.

This is another reason why I would encourage students to take their learning of Maths seriously. I’m not suggesting that you need to take it at tertiary level, or even A-levels, but you never know what’s around the corner.

Having the confidence to tackle mathematical problems could one day be the difference between you following a passion or deciding you’re not capable of doing it. I certainly believe the former to be the healthier option of the two!

Resources others found helpful

Maths Challenge Key Stage 1

Some challenging problems for KS1, this mixed review has a little bit of everything, mainly as word problems.

Notting Hill and Ealing School Past Paper (Maths)

A maths past exam from 2008 for Notting Hill and Ealing School, part of the London Independent Girls' School Consortium