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  • 20th Aug

    Actuaries and the Problem of Mathematics Education

    "Mathematics just didn't seem to have anything to do with my life". This is one of the most common objections from those who say they "hated" mathematics at school or "couldn't do it". The video below is a great example of this kind of conversation between two people at the opposite ends of the mathematics spectrum.

    Mathematics education has been in the news over the past few weeks, since a sub-committee of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Willis, published a report on the subject. It found that a fifth of those on engineering undergraduate courses had not studied mathematics past GCSE. Similarly 2 fifths of chemistry students and over 2 thirds of biology students had not studied mathematics at A Level.

    The findings led to debate about the reasons behind these figures and the best course of action. 

    Some blame the structure and focus of mathematics education, citing the fact that there really are two different applications of mathematics. The conceptual, highly statistical and involved mathematics that we as actuaries use, and which can be applied to other industries such as pharmaceuticals, and the more every day mathematics based on arithmetic and a general comprehension of numbers. Some argued that only a small number of people need the former, so mathematics should be taught differently for different levels of ability and interest. Others argued that the more conceptual mathematics should be taught across the board in order to empower the general population to have an understanding of the economics and statistics which impact their lives.

    Some pointed out that the exam focused style of teaching fails to encourage students to build connections between mathematics and the wider world, as they are too focused on simply consuming and memorizing knowledge for the exams.

    Actuarial science is heavily involved in applying mathematics to other areas and those who choose the profession clearly see and appreciate the application of mathematics to human life. Whether this has occurred through the luck of good education and/or encouragement from family, or through the student's own interest and ability will obviously vary, but it's interesting to consider in the context of this debate.

    As demonstrated in the video below, an aptitude for actuarial science is not necessarily accompanied by a superhuman ability to multiply large sums together instantly in your mind. Mental arithmetic is not part of the actuarial examination process! Instead, stochastic modeling, macroeconomics, distribution theory, demography and other disciplines are.

    Actuarial science requires creative thinking and problem solving. As Deepak Jobanputra commented in this month's The Actuary Magazine, "if you ask an actuary any question the response will start with "it depends"". Actuaries look at random variables, design products and look at topics such as mortality rates, natural disasters and diseases. 

    These elements will perhaps be at odds with many people's view of mathematics as a dry subject focused on black and white/right and wrong, with no room for "it depends" and little connection to real life. 

    An article in the Guardian this week addresses this particular debate.

    Teaching students about these areas of mathematics and actuarial science might help to encourage the next generation of actuaries as well as inspiring others to remain in mathematics education.

    For dedicated mathematics students, an actuarial career is one of the best opportunities available. We have a high number of talented candidates looking for entry level positions, to use the skills and knowledge their education has given them.

    Posted by: Star Actuarial
    Tags: Actuaries


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