Is maths always right or wrong?

First I have to say that anything which is written in the post reflects my own personal views and not those of the university or department. That said…as part of the first session in every mathematics module, I concentrate on two things, the importance of discussion in mathematics and people’s personal feelings towards maths. The latter always includes people contributing to the session and talking about the impact of their class teacher and the enjoyment of the lessons and the learning of rules and processes, but also the idea that mathematics is ‘easier’ because it always has right or wrong answers. My question is always..is this true?

Mathematics is one of the subjects that you either love or hate, there is rarely an in between state, unless it is the one when you suffer mathematics with no set opinion because it is ‘needed’ as a passed examination. I have always found literacy interesting, especially when embarking on my O levels with English literature. It always amazed me that after reading a poem, the master (yes it was a grammar school with robe clad masters) would ask for my opinion on the meaning of the aforementioned poem. I would think carefully, and provide, what I would consider an accurate portrayal of what I thought the poem was depicting, only to be told that that was interesting but wrong, and really it was depicting the answer that it provided in the text book. This always complicated literature for me and I remember always thinking that at least mathematics the answer was either right or wrong.

As my teaching experience, both in primary and higher education, as progressed this understanding about the right and wrong nature of maths has altered. When encouraging discussion within any mathematics session, it is essential to provide something to discuss. When creating questions or tasks to encourage discussion it almost essential that there should be more than one answer – this allows the discussion to take place, where participants demonstrate and explain their choices. Asking which is the odd number out, for example between 12, 13, 21, could allow a variety of responses, (13 because it is prime, 12 because it is the only even number, 21 because it is the only number where the one digit is in the units column). All answers are correct, if justified, and so technically there is no ‘wrong’ answer – although if someone said 99 for the above example, then this would be considered incorrect, since they did not chose one of the given numbers.

Although not the best academic source, I was interested in the comment that I once found on Yahoo Answers (like I said, not the best source) in response to mathematics always being right or wrong which stated

your “black and white” perspective of maths, that shows you are color blind to the world of logic.

(Yahoo Answers, 2011).

Maybe the right and wrong aspect of mathematics is like a beginning state, a first perception of mathematics. Initially mathematics appears to be only right and wrong, but as the subject is investigate and experienced in more depth, people’s perception of the subject alters. This would certainly account for the change in my own personal viewpoint.

When it comes to testing, the ‘right and wrong’ aspect of mathematics is certainly apparent. The standardised tests within education often compound the view of mathematics, encouraging people to strive towards the one correct answer in order to achieve that ‘mark’ in order to pass. This view is supported by Bogomolny (n.d.). Essential these tests have been devised to ascertain the children’s understanding of processes and products within mathematics. Altering the assessment to include justification and reasoning more would certainly encourage an approach towards using and applying mathematics and maybe away from the ‘right and wrong’ answers.

Whatever your opinion on this subject, it is clear that there are some areas of mathematics which are firmly focused on this ‘right and wrong’ approach. As teachers, it is important to consider not whether we agree or disagree with the concept, but more which way of portraying mathematics is going to benefit the progression of the children we teach.


References

Bogomolny, A. (n.d.) Is There Always One Right Answer? from Interactive Mathematics Miscellany and Puzzles [Internet] (Accessed 17th March 2013)

Yahoo Answers (2011) Why do people like maths? [Internet] (Accessed 17th March 2013)