Maths - Short back and sides

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Even hairdressers can benefit from learning algebra

There are some questions that seem to be inevitable in a maths lesson. And they usually come when pupils find themselves doing algebra after having been fooled with a clever starter activity. A hand goes up and a perplexed-looking face asks: "Sir, why are we learning this?"

It's a very good question and one I have had thrown at me from all sides. Most memorably, it was once asked by a girl in Year 11 who was set on becoming a hairdresser. Confident, engaging and bright, she could have talked weather and holidays to the Queen and not appeared flustered. So her question was well meant - what was the point in her studying equations, factorisation and brackets when, realistically, she was never going to use these skills in her work?

Looking around the room it was clear that few pupils would end up needing any equations, let alone simultaneous ones - a realisation that has driven the call for a more "practical" maths GCSE that ditches all the "useless" stuff. But my usual reply to the question on algebra is to ask my students whether they think they will ever use a speech from Macbeth in their future jobs, or need to be able to label the parts of a volcano. The problem is that once we start trying to carve up subjects into elements that are interesting but "useless in real life" and, for want of a better word, vocational, we end up with a seriously compromised curriculum - most of what we teach across all subjects is not going to be used directly in work.

The question of whether hairdressers need algebra thus gets right to the heart of what education is actually for. But now I enjoy having the chance to explain this to students. I tell them we are not preparing students for specific roles in the labour market, but helping them develop certain skill values and opinions that they will then be able to transfer in a variety of ways. They read Macbeth not because it is useful per se, but to appreciate something of the history of our language and the beauty of the words, and to learn how to analyse texts.

Similarly, we teach algebra not because pupils will use it, but because, like Macbeth, it is a language - a language of pure logic that develops skills in how to use careful, structured thought. My lively Year 11 girl considered my response, nodded her perfectly styled head and settled down to her equations.

Kester Brewin teaches maths in south-east London and is a consultant for BBC Education

What else?


Try bevevans22's fish game for adding and subtracting or Chriscrispus's straws activity exploring the angles of triangles. Alternatively, Clea Rodgers has contributed a game to test pupils' knowledge of circumferences and areas of circles. Tell us what you think.

For theoretical maths to alter the real world, such as calculating the re-turfing of Arsenal's stadium or decking the courtyard of Buckingham Palace, try amberrose's real-life contextualisations of perimeter and area investigations.

In the forums

Maths teachers share ideas on how to make algebra more accessible in the TES maths forum, and check out a debate entitled "What is the point of algebra?"

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