To start the year, I wanted to see what my students thought of mathematics. Is it pleasure or pain, hobby or hurdle, adventure or adversity? Or is it something else entirely, something that perhaps doesn’t come in alliterative pairs?

So I gave them a survey, asking them to complete the following six sentences.

- Mathematics
**is**… - Mathematics
**is not**… - Mathematics is
**useful**for… - Mathematics is
**useless**for… - My
**favorite thing**about mathematics is… - My
**least favorite thing**about mathematics is…

Their answers spanned the whole spectrum of attitudes, from rapture to resignation, from joyful to jilted. (Apologies for the alliteration; I can’t contain it. Clearly.) Here’s a small sampling selection smattering collection of their answers, in all their silly wit and strange variety.

…playing with numbers.

…a long word for “maths.”

…the best!

…the story of a few people who decided to take these regular numbers and perform cheap tricks with them.

…fractions, pi, Graham’s number, Einstein, and sweaty classrooms.

…boring.

…compulsory.

…quite hard.

…fun and easy.

…a language and an art.

…confusing.

…what makes the world go ‘round. Literally.

…potentially interesting as well as potentially tedious.

…one of the most important tools one can use in life.

…a load of complicated numbers and operations.

…strangely entertaining.

…an ice cream flavor.

…a way to fight crime.

…like any other subject.

…very fun.

…everyone’s cup of tea.

…easy.

…easy.

…easy.

…easy. [*You get the idea. This was a popular one.*]

…very useful.

…about imagination.

…a subject to take lightly.

…an elephant.

…a debating subject, as most of the time there is one answer.

…just one thing.

…a complete waste of time.

…entirely boring.

…boring. If it is, then the teacher made it so.

…taught in a way that makes it fun or enjoyable.

…a modern concept; it has been around for a long time.

…easy to understand; there are many areas I am still struggling to get my head around, but I will eventually.

…always a simple answer (or any answer we can comprehend).

…everything.

…nothing.

…tax evasion.

…cooks.

…mining ore from caverns.

…banking, buses, trains.

…thinking outside the box.

…increasing our understanding.

…buying stuff.

…organizing the financial system.

…NASA’s operations.

…bringing order to chaos; making complicated things simple.

…maths homework.

…choosing sandwich spreads.

…writing epic poetry.

…being Kate Middleton.

…saving you from a tragic blimp crash.

…dancing.

…making friends.

…creativity, because maths is very logical.

…chickens, and other non-enlightened, non-sentient farm animals.

…emotions.

…imagination and dreams.

…artists.

…playing with my dog.

…rapping about blight and urban degradation.

…day-dreaming, cloud-spotting.

…working at McDonald’s.

…dividing numbers by another or doing any other simple problem, because technology is easily accessible and we can use calculators.

…the challenge.

…getting the answer right.

…solving problems, because it is like solving a murder case.

…magic squares.

…happy numbers.

…the complete order and chaos of it at the same time.

…the fact that I’m good at it.

…the teachers.

…you’re either right or wrong.

…you never have to give your opinion.

…the logic and sense.

…that it is a universal language.

…how it can be used for almost anything in life.

…how even if something appears complex, it can be solved step by step easily.

…the history of maths.

…doing very hard calculations for no good reason.

…a calculator.

…tricky word problems and impossible equations.

…strange theories that don’t make any sense.

…hard work.

…when I use a compass that is loose and it slips and makes my diagram inaccurate.

…showing your work even when you know the answer.

…the questions.

…not being able to understand something and feeling frustrated.

…that it is not always presented in a fun way and can be at times very complex and discouraging.

…tests.

…that the teachers are not as inspiring as other subjects, probably because they’re also fed up.

…the fact that in order for me to grasp mathematics, it takes a long time.

…explaining proofs.

…silly diagrams.

…when I spend ages on a problem, then realize I’ve made a mistake really early on.

…the fact that, after primary school, they decided to ruin it by diluting all those lovely numbers with letters.

…there’s no leg room in the maths classrooms.

…getting the answer wrong.

…the long tedious sums and the unsolvable ones.

…when you have to repeat the same sort of single thing over and over again like a mindless robot.

“…when I spend ages on a problem, then realize I’ve made a mistake really early on.”

Don’t you see? It’s just like life!

I love these. Some of the answers are downright philosophical!

Agreed – lots of wisdom in there, along with some youthful cynicism (which I suspect is different from wisdom, but which I can never tell apart).

Maths is fun..

Fantastic answers. 🙂 My favorite one is that maths is like solving murder cases, this is what I like about maths too. I need to ask the same thing about physics next time I get a new class.

I love your blog! It is very inspiring for me as a new physics/maths teacher.

Thanks – glad you’re enjoying the blog! I liked the murder cases answer, too – I wonder if he’s seen the TV show Numb3rs.

For the sentence “Mathematics is not…”, I would have answered, “plural”. There is no such thing as a “mathematic”, and usage of the word “math” predates usage of the mistake “maths” in England as well as the United States. The British do punctuation better than Americans, but the word “maths” is a blunder. The “s” on “mathematics” does not serve to mark it as plural.

Sorry, Professor Quirrell let me in as a distraction while he steals the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone.

I like that as an answer – my brother-in-law, along similar lines, replied ‘Mathematics is not… a verb.’

For what it’s worth, they treat ‘maths’ as a singular noun (‘maths is hard’), much in the way that we treat ‘Stats’ as an abbreviation for Statistics.

Maths is not a plural either. Its just a word with an s on the end. Like physics.

I laughed… I cried… I wanted to create the ice cream flavor “Mathematics” (nuts, definitely; coffee, for the long hours; something salty, as the tears; raspberry swirl, as the blood (yes, blood, I tell you); chocolate, for the comfort (in squares); . Then alliterate it all.

That sounds delicious.

Get me Ben and/or Jerry on the phone!

I might have to steal this survey for my students this year!

If you use it, let me know how it goes!

Haha these are hilarious. This one made me cringe a little though.

“…dividing numbers by another or doing any other simple problem, because technology is easily accessible and we can use calculators.”

I have mixed feelings. I think it’s still valuable to learn, say, long division, for a variety of reasons (done properly it reinforces notions of place value and remainder; builds ability for careful computation, which is an unglamorous but useful skill; lays the groundwork for polynomial long division and the understanding of rational numbers as repeating decimals…). But I’m not sure long division is useful because it helps us divide numbers accurately. Calculators really are better for that!

Found my comment, amazing what you can find by typing in a name.

some of them were really funny, especially all of the maths is useless for….

Ah, you’ve found me (and yourself, apparently)!

I’m not sure what this says about me as a math(s) teacher, but I’m with you: I found the answers to the negative questions (‘is not…’ ‘useless for…’ & ‘least favorite’) generally funnier and more telling than the others (though I liked those too).

Reblogged this on The Cardiac Muscle speaks and commented:

Mathematics is…

Idk. ASK DESCARTES

I’d love to see answers to the same questions for other disciplines/classes. I would guess that some (young) people would be surprised to see that they, or their peers, have similar answers to seemingly different topics.

(Ah, and let me say this once and for all: the blog is very sweet and to the point – thanks a lot for sharing.)

I decided to answer these questions myself.

Mathematics isthe study of abstraction.(You see, at first I tried to give sensible answers.)Mathematics is notphysics.(But my responses got less sensible over time.)Mathematics is useful forentertainment.(Well, that’s what I was using it for 15 minutes ago.)Mathematics is useless formost things people try to use it for.(Just came out of my head. I don’t know why.)My favorite thing about mathematics isthat I can do weird things and~~nobody~~not everybody thinks I am stupid.(Could not think of a witty comment for this.)My least favorite thing about mathematics isthat my math teacher gives me silly surveys.(I am not your student, but if I were, I would definitely answer like this.)