Imagine a world in which tennis wielded enormous analogical power. In this world, by making the balls, racquets and nets represent different factors, players are able to predict the value of an investment or work out how much concrete is needed to build a swimming pool.
Tennis coaches would constantly be told that they had to make tennis relevant. Instead of merely teaching their students how to manipulate racquet and ball in a meaningless and abstract fashion, they would be urged to constantly relate tennis back to mundane everyday applications.
Imagine a student of tennis who is struggling with his serve and, as a result, has become demotivated. Instead of working on the serve until the student starts to feel a sense of success, the coach is urged to make the process of serving more relevant to the student’s everyday life, perhaps by relating it to popular music or a trip to the local mall.
Imagine this were true for all sports. Imagine, before playing a game of cricket, all the players had to agree on what the wickets represent, or before a game of football, they needed to decide on the meaning of the ball and the goals.
This is the role of maths in our world. It is a victim of its own predictive success. Maths is rarely left alone to just be itself, it always has to represent something else. Experts line up to condemn the abstract performance of mere procedures. If students are struggling at maths then this is because their teachers haven’t made it relevant enough.
I say we set maths free to just be maths. Children are actually pretty good at understanding abstractions when it comes to sport or music – but what do the notes actually mean? – and they are equally good at understanding abstraction in maths. What they sometimes struggle with is the maths. Let’s focus on that.
Anyone for tennis?