In the previous weeks, you were provided with elaborate explanations as to why Italy sucks, and why the original Star Wars trilogy is overrated.
This week, I hope to upset you with another unpopular opinion: namely, that mathematics is a useful class to teach in secondary schools – and that a few mandatory hours of it wouldn’t even be displaced in the IS programme.
Namely, there are many things that can be learned from mathematics classes, which are also applicable to our humanities studies. And, without attacking any of my fellow students, I think that there’s a lot that some of them can still learn from maths.
Maths teachers like to say that their class encourages logical reasoning, critical thinking, creative thinking, abstract or spatial thinking, problem-solving ability, and even effective communication skills. And they are right. The beautiful thing about maths is that there is a clear start, a clear end, and a semi-clear way to get from the former to the latter. By semi-clear, I mean that there is no one way to solve a mathematical problem, but there isn’t an infinite number of ways either. There might be two or three standardised approaches with explicit formulas, but, in most cases, it’s also possible to get through the problem using unexpected or impopular techniques.
So when students are taught maths – mind you, in a proper, elaborate, and non-grade based manner – they are taught a variety of useful techniques that can help them solve more practical problems later in life. They are taught to begin by gathering whatever information they have. This information can be used to fill in the blanks – aka, formulas. Then, formulas can be solved, one by one, and preliminary conclusions are drawn. These preliminary conclusions can be inserted into other formulas, and so on and so on, until an answer is found.
But here’s the thing – there’s not always “just” one answer. Sometimes there’s two, or three, or four, or even five. More importantly, however, is that the answers can be presented in different manners. They can be abstract, concrete, or precise. They can also be generalised, theoretical, and fictitious. This approach to problem solving is one that is currently lacking in IS. IS is good at stating the problem and criticising it. But its multidisciplinary approach to problems is not yet exploited as much as it could – and arguably should. By including a mathematical way of approaching things, IS students can be taught to work more concretely – they’ll be motivated to find a start, try different journeys, and end up at an actual end. Rather than constantly saying “it depends”, IS could take all the multidisciplinary factors, try to actually bring them together into a formula, and see what answers come out of it. Just as in maths, the answer might be “impossible to solve”. Or it might be indecisive which answer is the most applicable. But here’s the key point: there will be an answer. And an answer will be the first step towards actually trying to solve the issues IS is so happy to point out.
And yes,maths can be hard. Maths can be weird. Maths can be annoying and complicated and just generally not fun. But not everything has to be fun. Sometimes, things suck, and yet they are still useful.
Of course, this is not to say that mathematics should take up more time in secondary schools – at least not in the Netherlands. Admittedly, the almost 10 hours a week that I ended up spending on it might have been a bit much. But the standard 3 hours of classes, plus almost two hours of homework, is not necessarily a waste of time. Don’t abandon the creative courses, the art classes, the things students enjoy, but don’t get rid of the maths classes either.
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