What is maths and how do you become good at it?

If you ask children what maths is, many will think of ‘lots of rules and procedures that need to be remembered’, with success being determined by ‘paying careful attention’. Or, in the words of one girl interviewed by Jo Boaler in her book The Elephant in the Classroom (2009): ‘In maths you have to remember; in other subjects you can think about it.’

However, if you asked a mathematician, they would probably describe maths as ‘the study of patterns’, with success determined by problem-solving, a process of conscious guessing and persistence. Reuben Hersh has argued that the mis-representation of maths in school is what puts so many learners off.

Maths / Numeracy in the ‘real world’

Maths is used more than ever in both employment and daily life. Whether browsing the web, interpreting a pay slip, giving medicine to children, cooking, watching or listening to the news, working out personal finances, or taking part in elections, 21st century citizens need to be numerate.

What ‘bits’ of maths are tested in daily life?

Conrad Wolfram argues in his talk on TED that maths involves:

  1. posing the right question

  2. translating the real world question into maths formulation

  3. computation – ‘doing sums’

  4. converting the maths formulation into real world verification – does the answer make sense?

He then goes on to question why 80% of ‘classroom maths’ concentrates on computation – which is the one area that those using maths in the real world ‘outsource’ to computers.


We want maths in school to prepare students to be numerate adults – and at the same time reveal a bit about what mathematicians actually do. We believe that a firm foundation of early number understanding can be developed through recognising the in-built patterns in numbers and number relationships.

This secure foundation will allow young people the flexibly to solve problems in later maths and in the real world. See more detailed thoughts in The Mathematical Journey.

You may be interested in this…

Williams review

The Williams Report

An independent review of
mathematics teaching in
Early Years Settings
and Primary Schools

Numeracy counts report

Numeracy Counts' report

The recent ‘Numeracy Counts’ report from NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education)

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