The study of mathematics represents the highest level of intellectual activity. It is the academic subject that trains a student to “think” more than any other. There are many levels of benefits to be gained from the study of maths, other than the obvious pre-requisite qualifications into diverse programmes. The ability to reason for oneself, to make sound and rational decisions in life, to live with purpose, conscious and within moral bounds, are skills that are absolutely necessary for happiness and self-fulfilment. I teach a subject that nobody wants to do and everybody is required to do.
As a teacher of mathematics, inside and outside the classroom, it sometimes makes no sense to focus on a specific topic or specific mathematical skill. I have found that there is so much more to be achieved by the student who develops good study habits, who learns to get rid of fear, who learns to face the embarrassment of past experiences where poor teaching skills left them subconsciously hating teachers and hating the subject they taught. It is distressing and heartbreaking to find students with an attitude of “… here I am because I have to be here, go ahead and teach... I know nothing of maths and I don’t want to know, just give me a passing grade and let me go.” This is the most offensive and most perplexing situation to visit a classroom.
Students are not usually aware of the excess baggage they carry, the fears the hate and doubts. Once they get over that hurdle, to recognise that it was not their fault, to develop self-confidence, to put the experience behind them and move on, they can then get engaged in the study of maths and to recognise the natural beauty of the subject. I have had teaching sessions that develop into something more akin to counselling sessions. After all, I am no exclusive reservoir of mathematical content; there are so many excellent depositories available today. There are many good textbooks, books with attractive illustrations, colour enhancements and innovative approaches, so many exciting computer programmes, lots of fun YouTube video clips, loads of websites and web pages all available to those with the resources and the correct guidance.
Do we have the resources? Some of us do and some of us don’t. Most often we lack the proper wisdom of priorities. We sometimes spend more on bling bling than on textbooks. Some are quick to spend on a BlackBerry what could easily buy a laptop or notebook, or appropriate computer programmes. The subconscious mind is known to be much more powerful than the conscious mind. Is it 10 times more powerful? Some say it is more than 100 times more powerful. In either case, it is obvious that the more cerebral the subject, the more our habits, virtues and attitude come into play. The students who live in an environment conducive to study, are exposed to new and interesting ideas, and who are encouraged to develop skills of reasoning will have a distinct advantage. Activities which enhance intellectual development will always improve mathematical skills. One sure-fire way to enhance mental power is to play the game of chess or any other game of intellect. In my own experience, the sport of fencing helped me in maths. Other sporting activities in a structured environment will also be helpful. The study of music is another known and proven activity to improve mathematical skills.
As a nation we need to put priority on having qualified teachers of mathematics in place at all levels. We need teachers that have the necessary grasp of content, teachers that are confident in their knowledge and can inspire others, teachers with an understanding of “student centred” approach, teachers that can make the study of mathematics interesting and “enjoyable”. The administrators of our education system must be aware of this requirement, and make vigorous efforts to make it so. The potential rewards are many and multiplicative towards the education system in general, not restricted to mathematics. The fact is that nothing in mathematics is intrinsically difficult and mastery of mathematics is available to all who want it.