What Use is Maths?

I won’t lie to you. The chances of you ending with a job that requires you to use Sin, Cos and Tan every day, or know all six circle theorems, is pretty remote. And when you are older, the chances of a gorgeous woman/man coming up to you and saying “I would love to go out with you, but if you could just tell me four properties of a trapezium first” are pretty slim as well.

But that is not why we study maths. We study maths because it teaches us a way of thinking. It provides us with a method of solving a whole host of life’s problems away from the classroom.

Firstly, there are the obvious ones like making sure you have enough change for the bus, deciding whether those pair of jeans that are in the sale are actually the bargain of the year or not, and working out whether buying the 2kg packet of salted peanuts is actually better value than the 200g one, and debating whether you need 2kg of salted peanuts in the first place.

But there are much bigger and much more important problems than that. I am talking about problems such as deciding where is best to go for your holidays, how big a mortgage you can afford, which new car should you buy and what type of vehicle financing is available, should you go on a diet, should you take that new job, is this person really going to be the love of your life?

These problems may not appear to have anything to do with the maths you study in school. But they do. All problems we encounter every day have something in common. They all contain a certain amount of information which must be weighed up, sorted out, and then processed in a certain order. And once that information has been processed, it must be interpreted so that an intelligent decision can be made. All this requires planning, logical thinking, maybe a bit of experimentation, and then some evaluating and testing to make sure that the decision you have reached is the best one.

Well, believe it or not, many of these skills are needed and developed when studying maths. Imagine you are presented with nasty looking question about a tower casting a shadow across the ground, and given some information about the length of the shadow and the angle of the sun, you have to work out the height of the tower. Sounds like fun, hey?

Now, let’s just think about what you would need to do to get the answer. Firstly, you would need to weight up all the information and decide what kind of problem this was. Once you are happy that it is trigonometry, next you need to present all the information in a simple, manageable way, maybe by drawing a right-angled triangle. Next up you must decide what formula you need to use and what calculations you need to do. This then requires skills such as multiplying, dividing, re-arranging formulae, calculator skills, and rounding. When you have your answer, you must then check it makes sense by putting it back into the context of the question. Does it make sense for the tower to be 3,569m high? Probably not, so you may have made a mistake, so you go back and look through your working to solve it.

That’s a lot of processes involved in answering a question, but studying maths teaches you to do all of them automatically, without even really thinking too much about what you are doing. Studying maths trains you up to be an expert problem solver, and if you can solve life’s many problems, then you will be doing alright.

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