Learners often ask why they need to study things like graphs, algebra, trigonometry, Euclidean geometry, etc. They want to know if they will ever use these in real life and, if not, why they need to suffer through them now. Even adults have asked me this question, jokingly telling me that they’re still waiting to use circle geometry or parabolas in their daily lives. They had to study this or that as part of school Maths and yet they haven’t had to use any of those skills in real life. So why bother?
Think of it this way: Many of us go to the gym or work out in some or other way. This might involve doing exercises such as squats, push-ups or burpees (a vicious exercise where you repeatedly jump up from a plank position and then immediately return to your plank position).
One could easily ask when on earth you would need to do twenty push-ups or squats in real life (except in an exercise class, of course), and the answer would be never. Just imagine: Sir, we’ll get your order ready as soon as you’ve done ten burpees, or: Ms Smith, please show our clients that you can do twenty push-ups and then show them to the boardroom.
And yet, you religiously return to the gym or wherever you work out and do loads and loads of these or similar exercises. Why? Because they develop your muscles so that you can be healthy, look and feel great and, most of all, do useful stuff in real life. Strengthening your muscles enables you to do simple things like climbing stairs, taking part in sports, hiking up a mountain or lifting heavy objects such as furniture. In the end, it’s not about those individual squats or push-ups or burpees – it’s about the muscles they help you develop so that you can live your life to the full.
It’s exactly the same with Maths. In real life, and outside a Maths context such as a Maths classroom, you probably won’t ever need the information learned in certain sections, such as Euclidean geometry or graphs, exactly as you studied it. Your doctor won’t ask you to draw or interpret a parabola before making a diagnosis, and your employer won’t expect you to solve a couple of exponential equations before paying you your salary (except if you’re a Maths teacher, of course!).
But you will need the skills you learned and used in school Maths throughout your life. I’m not talking about Maths skills as such – I’m talking about skills such as problem solving, time management, logical reasoning and many others. Maths helped develop your brain in specific ways and now you can use these skills in real life situations outside the Maths classroom. Such skills are called transferable skills – you learned them through studying Maths, but you are now able to transfer them to real life situations and use them there.
Even in your earliest Maths test you had to work against time. Each test or exam has a deadline (a cut-off time) which you have to meet. This taught you to use and organise your time wisely. For example, you learned to allocate more time to those questions that carry the most weight (marks) and less to questions that only carry one or two marks. You use these time management skills in real life all the time, both at work and at home, as you make new decisions on what (or who) you should spend more or less time on every day. Time management is an integral part of our daily lives.
Maths not only taught you to manage your time; it also taught you to work under pressure. When you are writing a test or exam and have two problems left, but only a few minutes in which to solve them, you need to focus, stay calm, think clearly and logically and use all the information at your disposal to find a solution. In real life, we all need to be able to handle pressure in all sorts of make-or-break situations, both at work and at home.
Maths taught you important skills with regard to problem solving, critical thinking and complex reasoning. Just think of any section in Maths (Euclidean geometry, trigonometry, patterns or whatever). All of these taught you different ways of assessing, understanding and solving abstract problems by reasoning logically, making detailed observations and deducting important information – even under difficult circumstances such as an exam where you work under constant pressure. All of these helped develop your brain in an amazing way so that you are now able to handle complex problems in all sorts of difficult circumstances in real life.
In addition, Maths taught you to work hard, persevere and be creative in solving problems. In a test or an exam, you can only rely on yourself. During your Maths studies, you therefore had to learn to work independently as well.
These are some of the reasons why potential employees who had Maths as a subject are so sought after – because Maths teaches its students all sorts of invaluable skills.
Isn’t this amazing? You never had to take a course in problem solving, logical reasoning, working independently or any of the other skills mentioned above – they were included in your Maths studies. You got quite a lot of freebies!
So, when will you ever use parabolas and algebra and Euclidean geometry and trigonometry in real life? Why, you are already using the skills behind them. Every day.