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Teaching kids about money vs maths

Posted by Graeme in Education at 10:28 am on Monday, 19 February 2024

People often say maths is useless in real life. it is boring, we do not use it, etc. We should teach useful skills to kids. I am writing this in response to a social media comment that kids should be taught about finance instead of things like Pythagoras’s theorem.

One interesting thing is that it is almost always maths that is picked on. It is very rare for anyone to argue that we should not teach literature in schools because most people do not read literature as adults, or to argue that as few people become artists or become musicians we should not teach art and music.

The problem is that maths is usually badly taught. It should be fun – most learning should be fun. For maths specifically read A Mathematician’s Lament.

It is also useful in all kinds of everyday things. For example, buying a monitor – the advertised sizes are the diagonal so if you want to compare screen areas (I do!) you need to use Pythagoras’s theorem. How much finance can you understand without maths anyway?

Edit: it also occurs to me that this is a good example of the results of people saying “maths is useless” because they have been taught it by rote, so lack the understanding necessary to see when it is needed. It is not obvious how bad a measure the diagonal is if comparing different aspect ratios unless you have a reasonable intuitive understanding of geometry. The same when people accept an “average” without realising it could be wildly misleading for anything nonsymmetrical distribution.

The other problem is that if you eliminate a subject or a topic because the majority do not use it, then you remove the path to learning for people who do use it. If you have not done school level maths (i.e. GCSE level maths in the UK) you cannot become a scientist or engineer, and you would have had the chance to know you might be interested in becoming one removed.

I think schools do not teach enough maths – only a small minority of people can understand the statistics quoted in the news. Not even the journalists reporting the news have even a basic understanding of what they are talking about. They will use near meaningless terms like “average” without specifying which type of average they mean (it is usually whichever gives the number that backs their argument).

With regard to financial education, it would be very hard to get kids to take an interest in grown up money. You would just be adding another dull subject they will not retain. Kids in school are under a lot of pressure to study what they already do – adding more is a terrible idea.

I can add a whole lot of other things kids “need” to know. They should understand computers given they saturate the world (cars, houses, everything computerised, phones that are with you all the time) and understanding the technology is empowering. Basic statistics is another. A bit of law so they know their rights and can read contracts they sign. Something about business. Something about mental health. The list is endless.

Schools cannot do everything, and should not do everything. Parents need to play a role. I took my kids out of school when they were around 8 or 9 and gave them a more complete and efficient education (less time to learn the same amount than in a classroom). It is still impossible to cover everything – at least without making life miserable. Kids also need time to be kids – for fun, to make friends and develop social skills, to see things, learn to cope with everyday life, etc.

I think in the case of finance it would be more useful to teach it to adults who can see the point of it. Lets schools concentrate on academic education to lay the foundations and teach useful skills to adults at appropriate times in their lives. The same with other practical skills.

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