(at least for the moment)
I didn’t use trigonometry today. I didn’t use it yesterday. I don’t suppose I’ll get an opportunity to use it tomorrow. Sometimes I wonder why I ever sweated over it, memorising all those cosine, sine and tangent facts. What a waste of time that was! Or was it? You never know… a trigonometry opportunity may be just around the corner. I might get up next week and it will be the perfect trigonometry day. I’ll say, “Hey! It’s just as well I learnt trigonometry. I’d be stuck if I hadn’t. I am so glad I spent all that time learning the facts all those years ago!”
All those years ago? Oops! It’s been rather a long time since I last sat down and worked out a maths problem using trigonometry. I don’t actually think I remember much about it. I spent a long time learning it and I have forgotten everything I ever knew. What am I to do?
I guess if that trigonometry situation does arise I could always Google ‘trigonometry’. How long do you think it would take me to learn what I need to know? If I really need to know it, I’m thinking not long at all.
So why did I waste all that time at school learning trigonometry? Well, I didn’t have much choice. I was made to ‘learn’ it. Except I didn’t really learn it at all. I memorised enough to get me through the maths exam and then promptly forgot it. You see, I had no use for it. It didn’t seem worth retaining all those facts.
But I got a good grade in maths. Surely that was an achievement? Yes, I can say, “I did advanced maths and I got into the top percentile when comparing my results with all the other students in my year.” That sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Not everyone can say that. I can still boast about it, even today. But it’s an empty boast. “Let’s sit down and do some trigonometry,” someone might say. “I’m much too busy to do that,” I protest. I wouldn’t like him to find out I know nothing about the subject. All that’s left of my knowledge is a vague memory of angles and calculators.
If one day when we’re sitting in our aeroplane seats flying over Australia, one of my daughters turns to me and says, “Mum, what distance did our plane travel before taking off?” I could always Google the formula I need to work it out, assuming I have Internet access from my seat. I admit if I am unable to Google straight-away, I might wish I’d memorised the facts. But it wouldn’t make much difference if I did have an intimate knowledge of trigonometry because I’d have to wait for another piece of important information. I would need to ask the pilot what angle his plane took off at, relative to the ground, wouldn’t I? I can hardly do that when the plane is in mid-air.
And if a neighbour leaves a ladder leaning against his house with its top rung level with the intersection of the wall and roof, and one of my girls notices as we stroll by on our way to the village store, and asks, “How long do you think that ladder is, Mum?” I might be able to tell her if I again know the right formula. Of course I’d need to know the height of the house and the angle the ladder makes with the wall. Wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be easier to lay the ladder down on the ground and measure it with a tape measure?
I discovered these two examples of trigonometry by Googling ‘everyday use of trigonometry’. Everyday use? I don’t think I have ever come across problems such as these in my everyday life.
But what about my career life? There was no need for me to know trigonometry when I worked in a research lab in a veterinary physiology department of a university. But what if I’d had a different job? What if I’d needed that information? Wouldn’t I have been grateful I had learnt all those formulae? For of course school was my one and only opportunity to learn such things. Or was it? If I had suddenly made the decision to enter a field where advanced maths skills were needed, I could have done a course there and then, couldn’t I?
Charlotte (16) and I are talking about what she wants to learn about this year. “How about maths? Do you want to do the higher maths course?”
Charlotte screws up her face. “When am I ever going to need to know such things as trigonometry?”
“Well you never know,” I reply. “You could learn it just in case.”
What am I saying?
“What if you need it in the future?”
“Then I’ll learn it then. It’s never too late.”
“So you feel you know enough maths for now?”
Charlotte nods her head.
You don’t want to learn more just for the fun of it?”
Sophie might choose to explore maths simply because she enjoys it, but not Charlotte.
What will everyone say when they find out my 16 year old daughter is not going to finish the HSC maths course? “She might need maths… It’s good mental exercise… Isn’t she clever enough to do it?”
Oh she’s clever all right. She’s cleverer than I ever was. She’s not going to waste her time on something that might never be needed, when there’s so many other things she wants to do. And if she ever does need higher maths, she’s clever enough to learn it quickly without all those years of repetitive examples.
And I think I’m quite happy about that. I’m letting go of old ideas and other people’s expectations. Why is that so difficult sometimes?