Mathematics Needs More Prominence on the Education Agenda for the AI Era
After almost two years of disruption due to the pandemic, our ongoing recovery has highlighted the value of embracing change and working much more flexibly than before, refusing to give up at the first hurdle and a willingness to work together to achieve a common goal. These transferable skills are becoming ever more important for us to thrive in our increasingly automated world, and they are skills that can be developed and embedded through the medium of mathematics.
Fluency, reasoning, and problem-solving are the three foundations of our mathematics curriculum. By valuing them all, we will ensure that our future workforce has the confidence and skills to work together much more effectively to solve problems, overcome hurdles, and sustain our recovery. Let’s begin with fluency. Although AI is becoming increasingly prevalent, benefiting both our social and working lives, we still need number skills, perhaps now more than ever. Too many high-profile technology projects have failed due to basic mathematical errors. We need our education system to nurture the types of number skills needed in industry, especially a much greater focus on using and applying number skills. We must encourage students to develop their confidence in estimating quantities and a willingness to check calculations, even when they’ve used a spreadsheet or calculator.
From NASA’s disintegrating space probes to trains that don’t fit their platforms and submarines that are just too big, the tech world is littered with avoidable, costly mistakes. Acquiring number fluency means developing a ‘feel’ for numbers so that we can easily spot when something is not quite right; the NASA probe disintegrated due to a simple error converting units, the trains would not fit because no-one checked the platform sizes, and the submarines needed refitting due to an error entering spreadsheet error. Each of those three were incredibly costly, totalling millions, if not billions of pounds, but they were all avoidable too. We must nurture a willingness to estimate and develop a ‘feel’ for numbers, known as ‘number sense,’ alongside the more traditional approach of performing more formal calculations when needed. After all, few people head to the shops armed with a pencil, squared paper, and a ruler in readiness to calculate their change at the cash register.
We need to value number sense and rethink our expectations of the primary curriculum.
Encouraging a different approach towards the teaching and learning of mathematics may also help to address the gender imbalance in the subject. If you filled a room with a hundred math professors, the chances are that less than ten would be female. However, female mathematicians have played key roles in the fight against COVID. Mathematical modellers such as Professor Julia Gog, based at the University of Cambridge, drew on her research as an adviser to the government’s SAGE committee.
Nevertheless, even though more students study A-Level mathematics than any other subject, few female students choose to apply to study mathematics at university. My own research with female A-Level candidates reveals their preference for careers which help others and contribute towards a better society.
However, they often do not appreciate how studying mathematics might help them to realise their dreams by helping thousands, if not millions, of others through research on climate change, medicine, and networks.
We know that the gender gap in mathematical performance starts at a young age, and researchers have suggested that the changing expectations in the curriculum as students progress through their schooling might dissuade girls from continuing to study mathematics at a higher level. At primary school, pupils are expected to master written calculations such as long division and long multiplication to achieve ‘age-related expectations.’ However, to progress further, they also need to be able to solve problems, and this seems to be the point where female students lose out.
It has been argued that the switch from being rewarded for learning procedures to solving problems favours boys over girls, and the persistent gender gap in results for higher-achieving primary pupils appears to add weight to that argument. Effort are being made to encourage more females to consider studying mathematics, including the Maths 4 Girls project which organises school visits from female role models and the careers arm of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications which organises poster competitions to encourage more school students to think carefully about studying mathematics, both projects which I support. Yet more needs to be done.
Our curriculum and assessment system are designed to value number sense, estimating and problem-solving skills and perhaps rethink the time schools devote to rehearsing written calculations. Otherwise, we risk overlooking the huge potential of our current female students to contribute and build on the work of their predecessors, including Florence Nightingale, Mary Boole, Ada Lovelace, and Julia Gog, among many others.
To continue our recovery from COVID and rebuild our economy, we must embrace the potential of mathematics for developing and embedding the skills and attitudes that our students will need to thrive in their increasingly automated world: a willingness to "play" with numbers, estimate and check their answers; an enthusiasm for solving problems and working together; and an understanding that it’s OK to get stuck sometimes. We can overcome the hurdles that we face by working together as a team.