Simon Jenkins’ aversion to maths doesn’t add up

When an article begins by bemoaning the giving of a prestigious prize to an amazing maths teacher whose videos have helped a lot of people to understand complicated concepts, you know you’re in for a treat.

Simon Jenkins has argued that teaching mathematics to children is pointless, and that we should instead be teaching them about science, and in so doing has displayed a shocking level of ignorance about what science actually is.

Having trained as a biochemist and a computational biologist, I’m in a particularly privileged position to see the centrality of maths to much of modern life, especially in the life sciences.

Jenkins praises “…a radical new GCSE syllabus [that] dragged school science away from test tubes and Bunsen burners towards everyday life, to pollution, global warming, additives, health and diet.”

I would like to point out that without the aforementioned test tubes and Bunsen burners, we would have no understanding of “additives”, “health”, or “diet”. The way you find, for example, the amount of fat inside a foodstuff, is to take it into a lab and perform experiments on it.

“But that does not mean every primary pupil must spend hours, indeed years, trying to learn equations and πr2, which they soon forget through disuse.”

The fundamental mathematics that he decries in this article, such as solving equations or finding the area of a circle, are completely essential in a lab and in interpreting the results of an experiment. Much of my undergraduate degree was spent solving the simple equations that give the concentrations of reagents in serial dilutions.

Even the much-dreaded calculus has a role here, in describing rates of change.

Just a cursory glance at the researcher profiles on the Maths Department website here at my university shows the dazzling array of practical areas that mathematical research is pivotal to: tumour growth, solar cells, flocking behaviour, glacier flow, cardiovascular disease, wound healing, and antibiotic resistance. This research uses cutting-edge mathematics, drawing from the furthest recesses of number theory and calculus.

“There is no “need” for more mathematicians. The nation needs, and therefore pays most for, more executives, accountants, salesmen, designers and creative thinkers.

Even if you agreed which this sentiment (which I do not), I defy you to find an accountant or designer without a grasp of basic mathematics.

The rise of the computer age has made mathematics even more pivotal in modern life. Video games and computer animation are now booming creative industries, attracting many young artists. Both of these fields rely heavily on physics engines that cause a character’s body to move realistically or a projectile to hit its target, meaning that these creative thinkers use complex mathematics on a day-to-day basis.

The computer on which you typed this under-researched and ill-thought-out article runs on hardware and software created by people who benefited from years of mathematical education. In the source code of the Guardian website where your article is displayed, you can see how many times the word “radius” comes up in the code behind the rounded corners that make the page seem so cuddly and user-friendly. There are complicated algorithms behind resizing content for smaller screens, making the text accessible for people using screen readers, and in the way that the hyperlinks direct you through the internet, across networks of disparate servers, to their destination.

I’m not for a second going to argue that the British education system’s over-reliance on league tables, constant assessment, and the setting of targets is a good thing. There’s a reason that teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and it’s because they’re overworked, micromanaged, and underpaid.

The answer, however, is not to throw away a key part of the curriculum and refuse to teach students how to do simple geometry. You’d have to make use of pi if you wanted to do something as simple as make a circle skirt, and you’d have to understand basic logic if you wanted to write a computer script to automate a task. The idea that the world could still function if a generation of children grew up without an adequate mathematical education is laughable.

“In maths, roughly a third of those surveyed had no idea how to calculate a mode, a median, a “line of best fit” or the area of a circle. I seriously doubt this poll, since it implies that two-thirds did know the answers.”

As someone helpfully pointed out in the comments, this poll actually implies that two-thirds know one or more of the answers, not all of them. Mathematics is also essential to interpreting poll results so that you can write coherent news articles. Perhaps you should give it another chance.

Edit: an entertaining update.