Five myths about maths debunked

Giving children a decent mathematics education is about more than teaching numbers – it is about fighting unemployment and creating opportunities. It may also help save the planet, says one expert.

The South African Department of Basic Education is considering dropping mathematics as a compulsory promotion requirement for pupils in grades 1 to 9. This comes at a time when the country is rated second-last in the world in the most recent Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS). The role of mathematics in education is fiercely debated at many levels, with a few misconceptions being raised that urgently need debunking, says Professor David Taylor, a professional mathematician, and director of the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at the University of Cape Town.

“It is astounding how many misconceptions exist around mathematics,” says Professor Taylor. “If I had a rand for every time I heard someone say that you don’t really need maths, I’d be a wealthy man.”

He says a few of these misconceptions are:

1. Some people just can’t do maths

Nonsense. All people are born with the ability to do mathematics, says Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Marcus du Sautoy. Mathematics has to do with how the brain recognises patterns. Primitive humans had to spot danger quickly in the jungle and did so by detecting patterns – seeing something symmetrical could mean the face of an animal and, consequently, those sensitive to symmetry survived.

Pattern recognition is at the base of how we learn everything – languages, mathematics, music, art, etc. Professor Taylor says mathematics is just another language. “In fact, it is the most comprehensible language because there are never exceptions to the rule.” He debunks the idea that some people are creative and others more scientific. “The most creative people who ever lived, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were great mathematicians and composers like Bach and Beethoven had a non-trivial understanding of mathematics.”

2. You don’t need maths to be successful in life

This may have been the case thirty years ago. But the modern world is driven by an Internet ruled by algorithms, complex cellphone technology and banks governed by complicated regulations. Entrepreneurs and innovators coming up with novel ideas to solve the problems affecting communities need to understand how to model ideas and designs, how to draw up business plans and calculate risks. Potential investors and stock traders must comprehend the statistics of markets.

To be successful in business today, CEOs and managers have to be able to decode financial statements, board reports and lengthy documents which all require some level of mathematical ability. Basel III, the latest international regulatory framework for banks, is a document of over 1000 pages. The first Basel accord, compiled in 1988, had fewer than 100 pages. This is an example of how financial complexity has grown over the last few decades.

3. Some cultures are better at maths

Wrong. Chinese people are not inherently maths whizzes. Research by the National Institutes of Health shows that human brains have consistently the same molecular architecture. While individual DNA differs across individuals and ethnicities, our brains are basically the same in structure – and potential – at birth.

The reason why the Chinese are better at math is quite simply that they work harder at it than many other cultures do. Chinese children begin learning multiplication at the age of seven, following a method of ancient Chinese scholars developed 2 200 years ago based on rote learning and repetition. Children spend more than 15 hours per week on maths, both in and outside the classroom.

4. Maths is impossibly difficult

Mathematics is hard. It is the marathon version of mental exercise. But it is not impossible. Professor du Sautoy says maths is like learning to play an instrument or doing sport. It requires practice. Nobody walks out onto the tennis court hitting an ace straight away. But as a muscle grows stronger with practice, the mind also becomes better at mathematics if it is applied consistently.

If you think you can’t do maths – then you probably can’t. In his book, Your Plastic Brain, Benjamin Kramer says, “Changing your thinking is the single most important factor in changing the way your brain is wired. There is simply no other activity which contributes more to brain rewiring, however, it is also the aspect which takes the most time and effort.”

5. Maths really isn’t important

Sir Francis Bacon said knowledge itself is power. To those who say maths isn’t important, the question has to be – to whom? To millions of South Africans, mathematical ability is key to progressing from informal housing to better living conditions, having access to good education, electricity and water supply, proper jobs and a decent income. Being able to work out percentages and comprehending compound interest is necessary for even basic transactions like buying a house or putting away money for children’s education. All of this while decent jobs are reducing in number.

Most importantly, teaching mathematics in schools is about the future, says Professor Taylor. It is about preparing children to deal with the world in 20, 50 and 100 years. What will the planet look like? Will there be enough water? Who will come up with solutions to the consequences of rising temperatures and dwindling food resources? “Mathematical ability is about more than getting a good job and making decent money,” says Professor Taylor. “It may be directly linked to our survival as a species.”

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