Who invented Maths? When I’ve built my time machine, I’m going to go back and stop them.’

It was one of the more inventive ways of expressing disdain for my beloved maths that I’ve heard, and set up a beautiful paradox that we briefly explored – but this was not the first, nor will it be the last student to have entertained the idea of a world without maths.

I doubt you would find many students willing to step away from our internet-infused, technological society. If pressed, most would grudgingly accept that scientific advances powered by rigorous mathematics are responsible for their beloved phones and Xboxes, but in the classroom, this connection to curriculum mathematics isn’t always so clear.

The mathematics that has made our lives unrecognisable to previous generations often isn’t apparent from what they’re learning in lessons, any more than a spelling test is to the finely-honed script of their latest Netflix binge-watch.

However, the desire to provide real-world applications continues apace, with increasingly contorted set ups appearing in each subsequent exam series to provide a hitherto unseen application. We’ll soon long for the days of Hannah and her sweets.

Easy wins

That said, there are some easy wins. Personal finance management, percentages, bank statements, loans – these are all entirely in syllabus and of direct relevance to every individual.

Find real loan offers, compare bank loans to payday loans and work with spreadsheets to compare total repayments under various offers. There are numerous jobs where numbers are an everyday tool, but much of the processing will be automated – no fund manager is manually calculating their returns, for example.

A carpet fitter, on the other hand, may well be performing calculations themselves, but we should learn about the concept of area even if we’re not focussed on a career in carpets. Geometry isn’t on the curriculum solely for students to know and apply the facts themselves, but rather in order to learn about them, while getting to practice logical reasoning and problem solving.

In a world awash with disinformation, we should want to equip our young people with such skills. But will your students buy into the argument that critical thinking skills, developed through the application of relevant circle theorems, will help them sort truth from fiction when browsing YouTube?

Our students learn the building blocks of mathematics, but there’s no reason why we can’t pull back the curtain and point to some of the applications this can lead to. When Pascal and Fermat started thinking about dice games and formulating probability theory, they had no idea where it would lead.

Similarly, when we teach probability, we can preview the A Level content of hypothesis testing. The pandemic has brought little in the way of good news, but the mathematics behind clinical trials provides a good hook on which to hang the importance of evidence-based medicine.

Tell a story

Seek out opportunities to show students what lies beyond the horizon. Gradients of lines allows you to introduce the real reason why Newton should be a household name, the true reason why Leibniz biscuits have that name and point out to any budding engineers how vital calculus will be to them. The specific mathematics may be beyond their current skillset, but the story isn’t.

There’s also merit in hinting at some of the dark arts that await the more confident mathematicians. When Y7s enter the classroom and see Y13’s working on the board, Arthur C Clarke’s assertion that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” can be readily seen on their faces. Rather than suggesting that footballers are solving a quadratic when placing a penalty kick, let’s instead point to real-life applications like this.

Perhaps then, when our disgruntled student steps out of their time machine onto the plains of Africa 40,000 years ago, determined to stop anyone from etching any baboon bones, they’ll pause, look around and decide they’d rather live in a word with mathematics after all.

Dougald Tidswell is subject leader for mathematics at The Beaconsfield School