This House believes that Mathematics should not be a compulsory subject in schools.

All countries have mathematics as a key part of the curriculum for young children. Most education systems teach maths for quite a bit longer than that. In the UK, Mathematics is compulsory up to GCSE level (age 16) while in the USA it is often taught to the end of high school.

However, maths is a subject which people often complain about. It shows up in almost every collection of “most hated subjects.”[1] And also in more professional polling where 37% of adults admit to having hated maths at school.[2] Many criticisms are levelled at it, including being boring and not being useful.

Basic arithmetic is an essential life skill, which we use literally every day – prices, times etc. Any reasonable education system should include this. But it is not far-fetched to say that most children will have learnt this by about 15.[3] That being the case, imagine a proposal to stop all compulsory mathematics lessons after that age. Is this a good idea?

[1] ‘What was your most hated subject in school?, gamespot forums, http://uk.gamespot.com/forums/topic/27456217/what-was-your-most-hated-subject-in-school

‘What is the most hated subject in school?’, Ask, http://www.ask.com/answers/98892541/what-is-the-most-hated-subject-in-school

[2] Lester, Will, ‘Numbers don't lie: 40% admit hating math’, UT San Diego, 17 August 2005, http://www.utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050817/news_1n17math.html

[3] Bowers, Ann, ‘Math Concepts and Skills by Age’, More4Kids, 2007, http://education.more4kids.info/46/homeschooling-math-concepts-and-skills-by-age/

 

Title 
Maths is not engaging for students
Point 

Maths is one of the least engaging subjects taught at school. Subjects like chemistry are full of flashes, fires and experiments which help people see what they’re being taught in front of them. History starts with telling stories, and even though that’s not what the subject is really about, it offers a window into it. By contrast, maths has almost nothing similar. Asking children to use trigonometry to find the height of a tree does not fool them – all they see is another triangle. Some people enjoy it, but many do not.

Forcing people through maths classes which they find boring and irrelevant will only put them off maths; a recent study found that motivation was the most important factor for improving maths grades.[1] This in turn makes their children less likely to study maths, and causes a cycle in which a large section of the population have as little to do with maths as they can.[2]

It would be much better to not make these people study maths. True, they would end up not knowing any more than the bare essentials, but this is better than making them hate it.

[1] Ghose, Tia, ‘Like Math? Thank Your Motivation, Not IQ’, Scientific American, 28 December 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=like-math-thank-your-moti

[2] Kreutzer, Laura, ‘Our Child Hates Math. Is It Our Fault?’, The Wall Street Journal, 14 April 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323550604578412250659406338.html

Counterpoint 

There are several problems with using “engagement” as a way to measure whether or not a subject should be taught. Firstly, there is no way to tell whether students are bored because the subject is boring, whether they’re bored because they are lazy, or whether it is simply how it is taught. If we always taught children what they wanted to be doing, every warm, summer afternoon would be PE. That won’t give them the best education.

Secondly, we disagree with the final line. The point of the education system is not to entertain people, it’s to educate them. We do this by exposing them to different subjects enough for them to have a real idea what they’re about. Only this way will they be able to figure out whether or not they like it.

Finally, maths, more than any other subject, requires you to be really good at the boring and tedious bits (like algebra) before you can even begin the more interesting bits (like Number Theory and Multivariable Analysis). Measuring maths (or indeed any other subject) for how much “fun” it is does not give a fair representation of how useful or important it is.

Title 
Some people find maths hard
Point 

It is a fundamental principle of education that different people think in different ways. One notable application of this is the theory of different learning styles, and it also makes people have a preference for certain subjects.[1] Many people find maths hard, 37% of teens think it is the most difficult subject, for a variety of reasons – it simply isn’t suited to all minds.[2]

Another fundamental principle is that all children are equal, in the sense that we should support them equally in helping them find the right opportunities. It follows that we should teach them something useful and relevant to their personality and preferences. But whatever that may turn out to be, it will not be maths, and maths would just waste their time.

It makes sense to teach arithmetic to even these people, but there is no need to make them study further.

[1] Cherry, Kendra, ‘VARK Learning Styles’, About.comhttp://psychology.about.com/od/educationalpsychology/a/vark-learning-styles.htm accessed 12 June 2013

[2] Saad, Lydia, ‘Math Problematic for U.S. Teens’, Gallup, 17 May 2005, http://www.gallup.com/poll/16360/Math-Problematic-US-Teens.aspx

Counterpoint 

We recognise that not everyone should do every subject, but for practical reasons we have to ask them to give it a try up to a certain level. Apart from anything else, this is the most reliable way to tell whether or not the subject is right for them – how can you know that if you haven’t ever tried it? There are many different ways to set this level, and we feel that the current standard is the minimum which will give children a realistic idea of what the subject is like.

Title 
If we don’t teach maths we can teach other things instead
Point 

Schools are constantly pressed for time, money and staff. It is simply not possible to teach everything to everyone. This means that all of education is a balancing act. We try and isolate the most important parts of a subject and teach children what they need to know, but first, we have to isolate which subjects are important. So, for example, we teach History rather than Philosophy and Physics rather than Astronomy. Everything we teach therefore comes at the expense of not teaching something else and there are already some countries that choose other priorities; France for example prioritises Philosophy.[1]

Taking time away from maths has two advantages. Firstly, means we can teach other subjects instead, which will be more useful, such as dedicated classes on writing (or debating). Secondly, we can spend longer on those subjects which we already teach, making them better. As a bonus, we could even use this time to extend science lessons to include whatever maths is necessary, meaning we don’t lose out at all.

[1] Schofield, Hugh, ‘Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?’, BBC News, 3 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22729780

Counterpoint 

It is undeniable that education is a trade-off between different subjects. However, we contend that maths is one which we want to protect. It is a fundamental subject which is of use in many others, as well as teaching children how to think about problems. (Debating lessons are a great idea, but should replace something else, like Art.)

Teaching maths as part of science just wastes time, as all different science subjects need the same maths. All this will do is add to the burden on teachers, as they will have to coordinate with each other to make sure the class has covered the right maths for that point in the course. Moreover, this will never be as effective as having a whole class for maths.

Title 
Maths is an important subject
Point 

Every single science subject relies on maths. The whole of physics consists of using maths to model the world. At a basic level, this means drawing diagrams of forces, and at an advanced level it means writing down the gauge group which describes electroweak interaction, but it’s all maths. Even subjects like psychology, which are not normally seen as mathematical, would be lost without advanced statistics to decide whether a result is significant or not. Maths is as important to science as reading is to subjects like history and politics.

Making maths optional will mean some students don’t bother doing it. These children will find that science is closed to them. If we want to have a strong science sector – in both industry and research – as governments keep claiming we do[1] it is important to make sure we have people who are qualified. That means giving children the educational background required for them to pursue science should they wish to: maths.

[1] Osborne, George, ‘Achieving strong and sustainable economic growth’, Gov.uk, 24 April 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/achieving-strong-and-sustainable-economic-growth

Xinhua, ‘Premier Wen says science, technology key to China’s economic development’, Xinhuanet, 27 December 2009, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-12/27/content_12711291.htm

Counterpoint 

Many children find science interesting, 12% consider it their favourite subject, and will choose it when given an option.[1] These children will be happy to take maths lessons even if they’re not compulsory. The only ones who won’t take them will be the ones who have no interest in science in any case, for whom there is no benefit for doing maths.

It’s also worth pointing out that this argument seeks to match the educational system to the desires of companies. We feel this is wrong: it should be designed with the interests of the children in mind. That means giving them the opportunity to choose maths and science, but not necessarily forcing it on them.

[1] Kiefer, Heather Mason, ‘Math = Teens’ Favorite School Subject’, Gallup, 15 June 2004, http://www.gallup.com/poll/12007/Math-Teens-Favorite-School-Subject.aspx

Title 
Maths teaches a kind of logic which is useful for other things
Point 

Most subjects are taught not just for the knowledge itself, but for the skills the subject requires. Schools don’t teach English Literature because they want children to know a few poems. They teach it to encourage children to think about how people’s perceptions have changed over time, how two authors can see the same thing differently, and the way choices of language can reveal the answers. Similarly, maths lessons show you a way of looking at a problem: what am I being asked? What information am I given? Is this similar to other problems I already know? Do those methods apply here? This is a general technique which is valuable for students to learn.

Looking at education this way makes it clear that, in fact, almost no subjects are studied for themselves. We use them as vehicles to teach children certain things. That being the case, whether maths is “practical” or “interesting” makes no difference: we should teach it anyway.

Counterpoint 

At the very least, for this argument to be true you would have to rewrite the syllabus to focus on problem-solving rather than knowledge. But even then, there is no compelling reason for having this particular way of teaching skills, and little reason why other subjects should not be teaching the same kinds of questions. Given that it is hard, not related to the real world and generally unpopular, we should drop it. Instead, design other classes, with “being engaging” specifically in mind. This will do a better job.

Title 
Children should not be the arbiters of the education system
Point 

To avoid teaching maths to children just because they don’t like the subject would be to shape the education system around adolescent whims. But children are not best placed to put a value on their education. They don’t know what knowledge is required for life and what skills are required for a career. They are likely to choose arbitrarily, influenced perhaps by which teachers are most strict, which subject they happen to be good at and what mood they’re in. It is for this reason that we don’t recognise children as being fully capable of making decisions about their education. Consequences of this include a government-fixed curriculum.

Adults know the value of maths: one poll in America found that 34% of people named it as the most valuable subject they had studied at school.[1] We think children should be learning maths, and it follows that they will have to do it, like it or not.

[1] Robison, Jennifer, ‘Math Tops List of Most Valuable Subjects’, Gallup, 21 January 2003, http://www.gallup.com/poll/7633/Math-Tops-List-Most-Valuable-Subjects.aspx

Counterpoint 

Children should not be given power over their education, but it doesn’t follow that their opinions are of no consequence. We should very much care what they do and don’t enjoy. Firstly, if they don’t enjoy their schooling they won’t put any effort into it and will not actually learn anything. Secondly, if they feel we are making them do things they don’t want to do we will lose the ability to give them sensible suggestions.

We might think they ought to learn maths, but forcing them to do it will cause more harm than good.

Bibliography 

‘What is the most hated subject in school?’, Ask, http://www.ask.com/answers/98892541/what-is-the-most-hated-subject-in-school

Bowers, Ann, ‘Math Concepts and Skills by Age’, More4Kids, 2007, http://education.more4kids.info/46/homeschooling-math-concepts-and-skills-by-age/

Cherry, Kendra, ‘VARK Learning Styles’, About.com, http://psychology.about.com/od/educationalpsychology/a/vark-learning-styles.htm accessed 12 June 2013

‘What was your most hated subject in school?, gamespot forums, http://uk.gamespot.com/forums/topic/27456217/what-was-your-most-hated-subject-in-school

Ghose, Tia, ‘Like Math? Thank Your Motivation, Not IQ’, Scientific American, 28 December 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=like-math-thank-your-moti

Kiefer, Heather Mason, ‘Math = Teens’ Favorite School Subject’, Gallup, 15 June 2004, http://www.gallup.com/poll/12007/Math-Teens-Favorite-School-Subject.aspx

Kreutzer, Laura, ‘Our Child Hates Math. Is It Our Fault?’, The Wall Street Journal, 14 April 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323550604578412250659406338.html

Lester, Will, ‘Numbers don't lie: 40% admit hating math’, UT San Diego, 17 August 2005, http://www.utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050817/news_1n17math.html

Osborne, George, ‘Achieving strong and sustainable economic growth’, Gov.uk, 24 April 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/achieving-strong-and-sustainable-economic-growth

Robison, Jennifer, ‘Math Tops List of Most Valuable Subjects’, Gallup, 21 January 2003, http://www.gallup.com/poll/7633/Math-Tops-List-Most-Valuable-Subjects.aspx

Saad, Lydia, ‘Math Problematic for U.S. Teens’, Gallup, 17 May 2005, http://www.gallup.com/poll/16360/Math-Problematic-US-Teens.aspx

Schofield, Hugh, ‘Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?’, BBC News, 3 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22729780

Xinhua, ‘Premier Wen says science, technology key to China’s economic development’, Xinhuanet, 27 December 2009, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-12/27/content_12711291.htm

 

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