Jim Duffy: Troubling problem of why kids are forced to do maths

There are many more useful things to learn in school than trigonometry and quadratic equations, says Jim Duffy

Making kids learn maths that they will never use in their adult life seems to be pointless. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Making kids learn maths that they will never use in their adult life seems to be pointless. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How many of you remember the dread you felt when you had double maths on Monday morning or Friday lunchtime? How many of us didn’t care when it was slotted into the curriculum as the feeling of doom and gloom kicked in within you regardless? And just what is the point of Higher maths?

As I immerse myself in a full cognitive recall of double maths at St Michaels Academy in Kilwinning with Mr McNulty, I already begin to feel sick in the pit of my stomach. I detested it. I sat right at the back with Anthony somebody, who, would you believe it, is now a maths teacher. Obviously worked for him…

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I recall Mr McNulty harping on about Celtic in the first five minutes of the double period. Some of the football types in the class loved it. He’d usually then have a go at Mr Pendleton upstairs, who was the head of physics, telling us all Pendleton is a “mathematician gone wrong”. They both tormented each other this way, a bit like Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell on the X Factor. Then the maths would start.

I vividly recall quadratic equations. God, I hated them. McNulty would write up four equations on the board and we had to work them out and turn them into fancy graphs. I’d have a go, but with mixed fortunes most of the time. And of course there was calculus. Let’s not go there, as I may be violently sick on my laptop.

The worst thing of all in double maths was when Mr McNulty would say, “Duffy, this one’s yours”, expecting me to solve a quadratic equation line by line on the blackboard with him and the whole class watching. Now, I had not a bad standing in my year. I was in the top ten always and performed well in most other subjects. Like many a teenager, I had spots and, of course, was very self-conscious about that, while some of the Spandau Ballet type guys had skin like George Michael or Andrew Ridgley. So, now the spotlight was on me and boy could I feel it. I didn’t mind the other guys in the class enjoying me looking like a prat. But, like most young guys, I hated the girls seeing me squirm like this. It was definitely not good for my ego at all. Especially when I fancied two girls in that very class.

I’d bluster through it (McNulty would sometimes give me a hint). But it wasn’t pretty and at the end of it I was a wreck. And all this toil and embarrassment and effort for what? What value does maths bring to my life or, indeed, the huge majority of you out there as you go about your lives?

Pythagoras was a clever dude, but I don’t use his theorem or, for that matter, care much for it. And chain rules in trigonometry don’t help me driving to work or dealing with a member of my team. This leads me to believe that my time spent sweating in double maths was a complete waste of my time. How many of our kids in school today are going through the same ordeal? Is it fair that we put them through the ringer on this because someone somewhere says it’s important? Don’t get me wrong, when you are this good at maths, go ahead and fill your boots. Go study astro-physics or code until your wee heart is content. But if geometry is not up your street, why should you be forced to consider it?

I bet thousands of kids nowadays would be better served with a double period of emotional intelligence or double growth mindset. Two 40-minute periods of their life learning about themselves, what makes them tick, how they function in teams and improving their communication. Stuff that they can actually use to better themselves, integrate more meaningfully with each other and then develop in society as they get older.

I spent a year on the Saltire fellowship. It’s a pretty decent programme. But the best bit was the leadership and self-exploration immersion. We spent days and days doing meaningless MBA-type case studies. Sure, they taught me more about finance – but just enough to realise that I didn’t need to be an accountant. I just needed to know the right questions to ask an accountant to get an accurate financial picture.

It was the Karen Ayas classes on emotional intelligence, knowing what makes you tick and getting under the skin of “self”, that really caused the greatest leadership and management development. It still sits with me now as I continually try to come to terms with myself and others on this planet when I “check in” with myself.

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Times are changing and emotional intelligence and social intelligence are becoming hugely important to start-ups and large companies as they recruit talent. As I wrote last week, people are the key to everything in an organisation.

The ability and capacity to ask questions is a decent arbiter of intelligence – questions both to others and to oneself, to get to the heart of things fast. Working out where one fits and can add value. As an employer, I’m looking for a new colleague who wants to add value and learn and grow, not an individual who can rhyme off the theory of a circle.

It’s only fair to thank Mr McNulty, for whom I was no doubt a bit of a disappointment. But I can’t thank the education system that put me through it or those today who still torment thousands of kids with the notion that maths brings anything of value to their lives.

• Agitator and disrupter Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark