Has the math(s) brand become toxic?

For once I'm not talking about the contents of school maths but the name and its associations.

The question I'm asking is if our core technical subject wasn't termed "maths" but "nicebrand" would things go better in and out of education?

Sadly, I've started to conclude the answer is yes. I now suspect that using the brand of maths is damaging core technical education, its reform, and efforts to equip society for the AI age.

Believe me, this is not the conclusion I want. I've spent years of my life somehow connected with the word "maths". But much as I might not like my conclusion, I want the essence of subject maths to succeed; so I don't want the name to kill the subject—a much worse outcome.


To explain the problem, let's start outside education. First surprise: except for academic mathematicians almost no-one thinks what they're doing is "maths". Engineers, scientists, business analysts, accountants, computer scientists all have their own computational terms but none of them are maths. Instead they're just the subject eg. "doing engineering" or something directly associated like "modelling", "programming", "analysis" or "calculating the figures". More recently "data science" has been added to this list with gusto. I'm not saying these terms have the same meaning as the term maths but that maths the term is conspicuous by its absence. 

For people in their everyday lives, to the extent they're using computational processes directly, terms like "sums" or "calculating" mostly come up or more generically "problem-solving".

What I've observed increasingly over the last 30 years is that any mention of the "m word" solicits a disconnected, blank or scared expression from most people.

And I have very direct experience of this. Mathematica was our first software product at Wolfram (released 30 years ago this week). It was Steve Jobs' idea to call it that, the word flows nicely off the tongue with Latin-sounding solidity and was a great initial brand for the education market. But as we wanted to expand beyond calculus courses at college we ran into trouble with the name. Engineers said "I'm not doing maths, I'm doing engineering" and the like. We toyed with having a run of customised products also tailored in name like "Engineerica" but decided against it. 

Any mention of the ‘m word’ solicits a disconnected,
blank or scared expression

The name Mathematica has always sounded much more narrow and academic than the breadth of the product, diversity of applications or the range of computation we at Wolfram think we're engaged in.

For people in technical jobs outside education, this name rejection seems a bit strange. While they may now think maths doesn't represent what they do, there's a fair chance they were positive about it at school (even though most of their classmates were not). After all they will typically have done well at school maths to be in a technical job since. So they should be at least latent "maths supporters" but even if they are, is this helpful to the brand? 

Yes and no. It's not ideal to proclaim school maths' importance but then be the very same people who don't profess its use now. Some don't perceive that difficulty; others argue that today's maths is the only way to achieve what they have and so support it; or they may like the status that achieving at this "hard" subject gets them, independent of direct subject justification.

The problem is that any of those attributes tend to associate a view of school mathematics dissociated with real-life. But it's the third attribute of maths as a status symbol of "hard" that seems the most damaging. Why? Because it's not pushing that school maths should try to match a new real-world reality (hard though that is), but instead should be an abstract badge of honour, a necessary requirement, or even a necessary evil for achieving technical mastery. The argument goes that because all technical people today had traditional maths as core in their technical education, it is the cause of their success when in fact it might just be correlated with it.

Important not to confuse cause and correlation! Who knows how many more technical people we'd have and how much further they'd have got if we had a different, computer-based maths education from the start?

School maths should try to match a new real-world reality (hard though that is)...and [not] instead...be an abstract badge of honour, a necessary requirement, or even a necessary evil for achieving technical mastery

Many parents' natural inclination is to think their children should follow the course that made them successful. If you have a technical job, you are likely to think that the maths you did will be good for your children too. Paradoxically, this is particularly the case if you don't see maths as directly connected with your work now: if you did, you'd likely want it to change to match. But if you see it as only the abstract basis (if disconnected), you may well assume it shouldn't reform—as nothing else might match up.

This is rather like what happened with Classics in the past in places like the UK. It was seen as the intellectual basis of all other subjects, the centre-piece often supported by those who subsequently didn't connect their lives with it.

Maths...seen as important in education, largely irrelevant outside, abstract, too hard, too easy, frightening, boring, a crucial badge-of-honour that’s unattainable by most, too easy to mark you out, deadly serious for your prosperity but the butt of many a joke

What about most of the population? How does the maths brand play with those who didn't turn out technical? Frankly, the majority disliked school maths just like most of their children do now. They found it boring, hard, abstract, were told how crucial it was to be good at and yet (beyond basic primary level) apparently irrelevant to anything else in their lives. In some cases it really frightened them and that may have caused them constant angst since. Both at school and since they have faced a constant rhetoric about how maths is increasingly important. But they didn't get the badge-of-honour. They're not in the club. 

The maths brand therefore has rather unpleasant associations amongst many in the population. To diffuse this, people often joke about how they're no good at maths in a way they don't about less polarising subject brands like history. These attributes are often passed on to children, rather unhelpfully, while the pressures mount for good results beyond those on previous generations. Because "maths" is deemed so important, so part of our culture, yet so ethereal, there's little confidence to question the status quo. Rather like the assumption of godliness in past eras or some cultures now, questioning "why maths" or "what maths" can be taboo.

Around the world, education ministers typically reflect trends in their general population—some will have excelled at maths but many are likely to be less technical.  Either way, they almost all believe in the importance of today's maths as key to empowerment of individuals and society through technical prowess. Often that's because they simply think the school subject is what's directly used. If not they automatically assume that abstract school maths is the only conceivable route to later technical prowess, however disconnected its contents. They have worked hard to try to broaden the appeal of maths in most countries, to be more inclusive but paradoxically in so doing have confused the brand further away from a hifalutin status symbol. Crucially, what hasn't been achieved anywhere is to reform the content fundamentally while in parallel adjusting the brand to represent direct utility, relevance (which in itself may re-engender prowess, add creativity and re-associate both with the brand).

More than ever, the maths brand has fallen between two stools of status symbol and practical subject.

Questioning ‘why maths’ or ‘what maths’ can be taboo

Worse, while most governments are conscious of the need for maths to seem attractive, a few chase short-term political gain at the expense of the maths brand. For example in the UK there have been recent pronouncements on the centrality of rote-learning times tables (useful though knowing them might be), alongside words like "rigour" ( I always think of "rigour mortis"!)—neither of which seem the right brand associations for education's central technical subject that's forward looking for the AI age.

So the maths brand is simultaneously seen as important in education, largely irrelevant outside, abstract, too hard, too easy, frightening, boring, a crucial badge-of-honour that's unattainable by most, too easy to mark you out, deadly serious for your prosperity but the butt of many a joke.

These brand associations seem extremely unhelpful to optimising most students' learning. 

Rote-learning times tables, rigour...[hardly] the right brand associations for education’s central technical subject that’s forward looking for the AI age

You could argue that in some Far Eastern countries (in particular) the sort of competitive brand is revered by most of the population and that in a sense maths is popular because explicit competition in education is perhaps considered more popular than in western countries. Even if that's the case I would still argue it's negative for those populations because I believe this branding is making maths very hard to reform to something that matches the real-world. And good as these countries might be at today's maths, it needs radical reform for an AI age as, paradoxically, many in their governments understand more than those elsewhere.

A badge-of-honour maths brand means rational argument about the need for reform is often argued away. If it was a side subject, this wouldn't matter. But the combination of being both central and branded as a measure of prowess means there's a fundamental brand split that impedes what's in any case a difficult reform of the subject-matter that's needed, and meanwhile puts many off the current subject.

Worth contrasting with the school subject of Religious Studies in the UK, whose forerunner Divinity I had to take. Like maths, religion strongly divides opinion. It is however intriguing to me how RS has transformed from what might largely be described as biblical study to what's more like moral philosophy and ethics. It's broadened its reach a good deal by dint of being a side-subject indeed to the point where its naming (relatively recent though it is) might be unnecessarily off-putting to some even if they'd like the content! Because RS is a side-subject, it's OK to reform it and start to re-associate the brand. Because maths is core, it and its brand are seen as sacrosanct.

When my team and I embarked on trying to redefine what the core technical school subject should be, we called it Computer-based Maths. Increasingly, however, I find myself trying to steer away from the maths part of the term and instead describing this as Computer-based thinking or Computational thinking, so nervous am I that the m-word will hijack all rational discussion or possibilities of change.

It's interesting to note how I'm not alone. At university level "Computational XXX", where XXX is a subject like Linguistics is coming to the fore, as a term with "maths" increasingly absent in the vocabulary.

My thinking on this has shifted a good deal over the last few years. If I'd been asked to bet 5 years ago about whether the fundamental core technical subject redefinition will end as a reform of maths or a newly named subject I'd have guessed the former. Now I'd guess the latter.