One of the interview questions I remember for my ITT course was “how will your maths degree prepare you for a career in teaching?” My reply was that I didn’t think the subject content would help me at all but the problem-solving skills would. I was reflecting on that, when thinking about combating “when will I ever use x in real life” – a question we also considered at the Maths Scholarship interview workshop.

It is tempting to come up with a contrived example of how the exact piece of maths will be useful when you put that ladder against your wall one day. However, it seems doing so may actually alienate some pupils who can see straight through you. If they no longer trust that you are being completely honest, this may damage that vital relationship.

There are scenarios where maths (especially at GCSE level) may come in useful later in their lives. For example, a friend reported back to me venting his surprise that he used “that stuff” when applying trigonometry to design a lighting rig for a show. However, pupils will end up in all sorts of careers when they are older so it is impossible to know that any of them will ever use it.

I thought through the wonderful and wacky areas of maths I studied at university, such as axiomatic set theory that I am not going to use, and what my maths degree gave me. I concluded that the problem-solving skills and logical thinking that you get from working with a set of rules in a given context are invaluable in nearly all careers – an idea that I hope my pupils will learn to respect.

Some of the foundational mathematics undoubtedly grounded my basic understanding and my appreciation of the interconnected nature of maths has helped me to piece together the curriculum for lesson/topic plans. Notwithstanding, there are routine procedures (‘keep, change, flip’ for division of fractions and ‘a negative times a negative is a positive’) that I have found difficult to explain. Working with algebra tiles at university to represent the latter was insightful, and I did have fun representing some more complex algebra. There are limits to these models and tough questions of when it is appropriate to use them and for whom.

I continue to stand by the answer I gave at my interview, but I am starting to appreciate the importance of my firm subject knowledge. A key takeaway from this week was, however, to not rely on real life examples to motivate students and to encourage them to instead be motivated the skills they develop as they increase their mathematical fluency.

By Jonathan Winfield MMath, Maths Scholar, University of Birmingham.