Higher Mathematics is Not Right for All Students

Higher Mathematics is Not Right for All Students

My proposal is straightforward. Make mathematics optional after you have taught high school students the core mathematics concepts. According to me, these are:

  • Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
  • Percentages.
  • Basic geometry.
  • Simple, single equations.
  • Compound interest.

Once the students know these things, they should have the option of taking other courses that are logical and rigorous. It’s a radical idea but it’s time we acknowledged that higher mathematics is not right for all students, and probably actually hurts some students.

I don’t dislike mathematics. Far from it. I have always been good at it, scoring top marks in it. I have taught my children to memorize multiplication tables up to 15. And the squares of all numbers up to 25. I am a professional, practicing economist who used to teach mathematical economics course to Research Scholars.

So, mathematics and I are good friends. However, I know many smart, logical people who could never get the hang of mathematics. Did they ever get quadratic equations? Sines and cosines? Summation of infinite series? Exponentials? No. I know plenty of intelligent, smart, logical, productive people who never “got” them. And some who did “get” them enough to pass exams but have now forgotten them.

I see young people who are struggling to master mathematical concepts that they will never use in their lives. And older people, who say to me, “I was never good at mathematics,” as if that is some kind of demerit. Somehow, no one feels concerned about not being good at other subjects such as philosophy. Wait! Most people never even study philosophy, even though it is full of insights.

All this because our educational systems venerate mathematics. It’s something that you have to learn. Once you get it, you will see how beautiful and aesthetic mathematics is. And you will learn how to think logically, rigorously, and efficiently. 

But what if you don’t get it? Should you keep banging your head against a wall because it is a beautiful, elegant wall? Obviously not.

Many people respond to my proposal by disagreeing with it in principle. Some of them agree that mathematics is taught in such a way that it does not resonate with some students. In other words, the problem is not mathematics. Instead, the problem is that it is taught in a bad way.

Well, what is the better way to teach mathematics? The better way should resonate with most students, and make them eager to learn and enjoy it. Has any country developed a better way of this type? No. We do see that the students of some countries do better in mathematics than students from other countries. But that’s not because of a more enjoyable teaching method. Instead, most of the countries doing well use traditional teaching methods. Their students do better for other reasons.

Still, let’s suppose that such a better system exists somewhere. Now, we have to bring it to India. Then, revise the mathematics curriculum across India. And then, train the teachers how to teach in the new way. That’s not enough. Will we have different types of questions on the exams? How will students prepare for them? And, with the senior family members and friends not familiar with the new method, who will help the students.

It’s all a pipe dream of people who are good at and like mathematics. The reality is that the teaching of mathematics leaves many people incapable of calculating percentages, even with a calculator. If there is a 20%-off sale, most people cannot figure out how much they will save at the lower price. When asked, they say, “The store will calculate it, so I am OK.” 

I would love it if all students liked and enjoyed mathematics. But I don’t see that happening now or at any time in the future. Instead, what I see are many maths-stunted students who in their later lives don’t want to come near anything mathematical. That’s what we need to end, as soon as possible.

At the same time, the students must learn something else instead of mathematics. It could be another language, or philosophy, or something else that the schools can introduce quickly. However, the key first step is to accept that not all students should be taught mathematics beyond the core concepts.

About the Author

Subodh Mathur, an economist (Ph. D. MIT), has worked in many countries. He is the author of the book called ‘India's Path to Prosperity 2022-2047: A Workable Agenda for the Next 10-15 Years’.

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