In England they don’t even call it math: they call it “maths.” With an -s to indicate the plural. Apparently, the English think there is more than one math. So—maths. There’s more than one kind of math, and more than one way to describe what math is. Partly, the description depends on where one sits and where one works.
Like sitting at the elbow of a kid with a disability struggling to learn something. Or standing in front of the classroom trying to explain, say, 3 + 4 = 7. Or working with your own kids at home on the times tables (many of us remember that).
Everyone involved in those roles does have something to say about what math is. And then there are high school math teachers, college math teachers, and “mathematicians”—whatever they are and whatever they do. And also truck drivers and waitresses and accountants and engineers. Each one knows best one or a few kinds of maths.
So what’s the answer to the question “What is math?” One answer is: “Math is a way to make good sense using numbers and shapes.” It’s not a very good definition. Agreed. But it captures the respect for logic that is such an important part of math. Another answer is that math is problem-solving.
Definitions of something as complex as math are imperfect and incomplete. But whatever the definition, it’s important to appreciate—and remain open to—the real fact that math is like a great cathedral or a long story or an intriguing landscape. It has many features that should be interesting to kids as well as to adults. It has many potential uses. We can even say that “math is everywhere” just because we live in a three-dimensional world with lots of related objects and phenomena. We use math to assess that space and those objects and phenomena—everyday and most of the time. In this unit, our goal is to help you appreciate math by thinking about it as a useful (and even beautiful) method for making sense of the world: a method that is accessible to everyone, not just mathematicians.