"When am I going to use maths in the real world?"

Harrison Cusack

24th July, 2023

Thank you!
Every day, in high schools all over the world, teachers are bombarded with the question: “When am I going to use maths in the real world?” It’s a question that can frustrate both students and teachers alike, as students generally struggle to find motivation for a subject that they don’t believe will have utility for them.

I actually think that it’s a question worth asking, and so today, I’ll give my two cents on when students will use maths in their own lives.

The first (and most obvious) reason is that students will use maths in their maths exams, doing well in which will in turn boost their ATAR score, which comes with a whole host of benefits and opportunities.

The second is that schooling is designed to expose students to a variety of subject areas, helping them realise their strengths and weaknesses and ultimately aiding them in picking career paths. Almost by design, some students will enjoy maths, and others won’t. A student who has found his passion for acting via drama lessons, for example, may question the relevance of his maths class, but not be aware of a classmate who finds herself in the opposite situation – questioning the relevance of her drama class while finding a passion for maths, which can take her on to a career in research, finance, data analysis, engineering, or numerous others.

The third is that regardless of career, maths truly is everywhere. From simple things, such as mentally tallying up a food order bill before ordering, to intermediate-level concepts, such as choosing between a pair of financial investment decisions, to even complex, senior-level mathematics, such as analysing how betting agencies set their prices, having some degree of mathematical knowledge will stand students in good stead for a number of scenarios that may not be immediately obvious.

But the fourth reason is the most interesting and important. Many students believe that the value of mathematical education is in the mathematical content itself. This, in my opinion, is a misconception. High school maths, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t about knowing how to take a derivative using the chain rule, nor is it about understanding the properties of discrete random variables, nor is it about finding missing side lengths of triangles. Instead, high school maths is about instilling a combination of logical thinking, problem solving abilities, pattern recognition, and persistence in students that will serve them well long after they walk out of their maths classroom for the final time.

I like to think that a mathematical education builds up the logical part of a student’s brain, arranging their mind into a structured collection of drawers and shelves, priming them to be able to process and analyse new knowledge, in whatever their subject area of choosing, in an efficient, ordered way. Not only this, but the maths classroom offers students an opportunity to practice solving abstract problems in a risk-free environment before they begin the next stage of their lives solving real-world problems with very real-world consequences.

I like to use a sporting analogy here. Take the training programs of Olympic-level swimmers. Sure, they spend lots of time in the pool, but a number of hours each week are spent in the gym, developing the muscles that they’ll need to succeed in the pool in the first place. In this scenario, sitting in maths class is like going to the gym – it may not be your future career, but it’ll certainly develop the mental muscles that you’ll need to succeed in your future career.

Universities and employers are very aware of this as well – for example, it’s no coincidence that many degrees involving very little maths (for instance, Business Management) still require students to have studied maths in high school. It’s not that they need students to be able to recall particular mathematical content, but simply that success in high school maths is an easy way of measuring whether someone can reason logically, think abstractly, and knuckle down in a subject that they may not be particularly passionate about.

Next time you’re questioning why you’re learning about taking derivatives, remember that nobody is pretending that you’ll be taking derivatives in five years. Instead, by taking that derivative, you’re working the logical and abstract reasoning muscles in your brain harder than just about any other subject can, so that when you face problems in your own life, your mind has the facilities to work through them, systematically, piece by piece, just as you would work through a maths problem, systematically, piece by piece.
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