Thinking Creatively about Maths

Last week a five year old asked me ‘what is the biggest number?’ How do we answer such a question when there isn’t one. At this age, the smallest number is one – so the concept of numerical infinity would be hard to grasp. This particular five year old is always asking unusual questions about maths, demonstrating his interest and curiosity. Indeed, maths in my view has the potential to develop creative and deep thinking individuals. Clearly this five year old thinks about numbers and enjoys maths – so far at least.

A recent article in the Times argues that children should not be forced to learn maths beyond the levels they need for practical life skills – numeracy, fractions, decimals and percentages, money, measuring and so on. The writer argues that maths at advanced level, beyond GCSE, should be taught only to those children who truly revel in it and would therefore look forward to immersing themselves in maths for two more years.

My own view is that many more children would revel in maths if it was taught more creatively – inviting learners to explore, ask questions and find out for themselves. Does having a National Curriculum tend to stifle such creativity? Are some children turned off maths prematurely because it is seen as a mystery? There are no quick answers to these questions. On the one hand we must have goals and targets for children to aim for. On the other, creativity happens more when children explore beyond the beaten track.

Maths is an important subject. But it must never be seen as an end in itself – a collection of skills and knowledge with no application to real life. Inviting children to apply maths may help them to see its relevance as a life skill. English and Maths are still passports to other learning, at school and beyond.

Creative thinking needs to start early if the goal is to get more children excited about maths.

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