That’s not just an intriguing question, it’s also the title of a very interesting book. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in math.

But I also think it would be good for those of you who say you are not a “math person”. Offering a little insight into why school soured you on the subject.

While the book’s focus is not on math education, early on the author does make some great points about the priority we place on the subject in most schools. Like the idea that all students will need “math” – specifically the exact same classes as everybody else – for their future careers.

Trying to get everyone to meet the standards needed for mathematical jobs would be like teaching children cooking as if they’re all training to be line cooks in a professional kitchen. Instead it’s better (in both cases, I suspect) to show them the possibilities, nurture enjoyment and curiosity, and trust that they can learn the more precise skills later if they need and want to.

Usually when I say things like this some people get up in arms and say, “But there are basic math skills that are crucial for everyday life!” I suppose there are, but I don’t think there are really that many, or they’re not really extremely crucial. Most of the scenarios in which they are “crucial” are rather contrived. And either way, we are teaching plenty of things that aren’t crucial at all, and we need to weigh that up against the harm we’re doing by actively putting so many people off math with an unimaginative and limiting approach.

So, kids are expected to study a whole lot of irrelevant material during their time in K12. But there’s also that “unimaginative and limiting approach” to the way math is taught. One that starts and ends with an overemphasis on getting the “right” answer.

In school math, we put too much emphasis on answering questions rather than on asking them.

Math might seem like it’s about getting the right answers, but really it’s about the process of discovering, the process of exploration, the journey toward mathematical truth, and how to recognize when we’ve found it. That journey starts with curiosity, and curiosity makes itself known in the form of questions.

We don’t really encourage curiosity in school, and not just in math class.

That whole idea of pushing kids to find THE one right answer, instead of encouraging them to ask questions and learning how conduct their own line of inquiry, is missing from the instruction in most classes.

Anyway, let’s return to the original question: is math real? As with so many parts of mathematics – and life in general – it depends.

Math is real in the sense that it’s an idea, and ideas are real. They exist. That’s good, because if math didn’t exist we’d somehow be studying something nonexistent, which makes no sense.

In another sense, math isn’t real, if by “real” we are referring to concrete things we can touch, rather than dreams that we create in our heads.

Having studied mathematics in college and attempted to convey the subject to middle and high school students for eighteen years, I fall on the side that says it certainly is real. Except that what you were taught in school, either in terms of content or how necessary it would be to your future self, was not close to reality.

I think the author’s earlier use of the word “contrived” was very appropriate. It perfectly describes most everything about both the status the subject commands in most K12 school programs and the way the subject is taught (and tested).

However, there are far better ways for kids to learn mathematical concepts they might actually find relevant.

And much better uses for the time most of them now spend on cranking through the mechanical processes schools label as “math”.

Little bit of trivia: in the UK, Australia, and other places where the king’s English is spoken, the book has the title Is Maths Real? The pluralization of the word is an acknowledgment in most of the rest of the world that humans have invented multiple systems of mathematics over the centuries. And they are all real.