No future without maths

Today’s and tomorrow’s jobs will require more and more mathematics; and yet the level of students in the West seems to be consistently dropping. What can we tech companies do about this?

The universe is written in mathematical language, Galileo famously observed.

It is all the more true now, as maths seems to have worked its way into all fields, from financial markets to medicine, urban planning, transportation, and of course everything IT. Not only is this discipline at the heart of technological innovations that will transform the face of society; its teaching is also a major driver of growth – countries whose inhabitants are good at maths also tend to fare much better economically. The example of Finland comes to mind, or of China, with a direct correlation between science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education and value and wealth generation, in tech startups in particular. One need only cross-reference OECD PISA* rankings with performance indicators to see that knowledge capital drives economic growth – this is true especially in Asia – which itself drives human development.

“Maths education is also a major driver of growth”.

On a more individual scale, this discipline and its use of demonstration, deduction, teaches students a lot about the structure of ideas, about reasoning, about argumentation – a form of thought that westerners, notably of Latin culture and their Cartesian minds are quite attached to… Math’s more generally has its own beauty, a particular and aesthetic way of thinking the world.

The level in maths is deteriorating in Western countries

And yet… while the West has a great mathematical tradition (notably a country such as France claiming the second highest number of Fields medals), the last PISA survey shows that our students’ results have been steadily deteriorating over the past ten years, including those of top students.

The mathematization of the world paradoxically goes hand in hand with a seeming loss of interest in the discipline. The idea is widespread among school students that they are rubbish at maths and that it’s ok: “maths isn’t cool, maths is useless in the real world”. The result is that 10% of young French people feel that they can’t carry out daily activities involving numbers, which stands in the way of personal projects such as creating their own business (Cedre survey**).

The consequences are already big today… but they will be huge tomorrow. Not only because the young generation will have become the new workforce, but also because it is hard to change education policy – meaning that difficulties will only accumulate.

This is why mathematician, Fields medalist and now Member of Parliament Cédric Villani was entrusted with writing and publishing a report with researcher Charles Torossian on what can be done to improve the maths literacy of French male and female students.

Companies have an educational role

I believe that companies, especially tech companies, must take an active part in promoting maths and maths-related subjects (physics, chemistry, computer science).

This can mean taking part in education– at least in part. One emblematic example is of course that of 42, the school set up by Xavier Niel to teach computer programming to a large number of students.

Without necessarily going that far, I agree with the Villani-Torossian report that we must establish a stronger link between schools and private companies. This can take many forms, from simple visits to long-term partnerships. We invest in so many fab labs, incubators, research hubs displaying state of the art technology… Let’s open them up to high school students, more than we do now; let them experiment, see what science is all about! An added bonus would be to make teaching less passive and more interactive – one of the strong suits of maths education in Singapore and the now famous “Singapore Math”, a country that does exceedingly well in the PISA survey.

Students should be able to interact with technology – and technology can in turn help them with their learning. AI resources, the report also points out, have a lot of potential to assist students who are experiencing difficulty (or in difficulty), to help teachers manage different levels and to personalize their courses. There, too, companies can play their part.

“The promotion of mathematics and science is one of the means to reconcile business imperatives with social, societal, environmental ones”.

All these questions raise a more global one: that of the role of private companies in society. I believe that most companies now realize that they have to reconcile business imperatives with social, societal, environmental ones… I would be happy if promoting maths and science was acknowledged as one of the means towards that end. I believe that we all need to have big ambitions for society in this field.

Let’s not let our guard down: we must act now, without further ado. It is our responsibility to build the future of our own companies, to participate in the future of countries where we are present. Galileo was right: without mastery of mathematical language, our understanding of the world would be nothing more than "a vain wandering in a dark labyrinth".

By Patrice Caine, Thales chairman and CEO

* The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

** The CEDRE survey (cycle d’évaluations disciplinaires réalisées sur échantillon) is a French survey which aims to assess pupils' knowledge of subjects, in relation to objectives set by teaching programs.