My son played cricket on his school team in one of the oldest schools of Bangalore. Their (the team and every team member) only goal in life was to beat their 150+ years’ old rival school and bring the trophy home every year. The final match of the tournament is a sight to behold: the fanatical crowd of students from both schools in the stands shouting each other down and often threatening to lead to fisticuffs feels no less than an India-Pakistan or an Ashes match.

It is no wonder then, that neither side leaves anything to chance. They prepare for the tournament through the year, with students (and their poor parents) waking up at 4.30 AM and hitting the practice nets well before sunrise.

I was surprised one day, to see my son taking an interest in table-tennis. Had he quit the game he had worked so hard for, for ever since he learnt how to hold a bat properly?

Not at all! Apparently, his coach had asked the team to play table-tennis to help them improve their skills in cricket. If you are even moderately good at table-tennis and have played even one respectable game, you would know that it needs quick reflexes. And that is what their coach was trying to develop.

That leads to the topic that has been weighing every Maths teacher down for ever! I have been on a talk show with educators - called the Sarabpreet Singh Chandhok Talk Show, for nearly a year now. They record an episode almost every week, and through this and my work meetings, I have met over 300 school principals and several Maths teachers. The one thing everyone talks about when it comes to why kids develop Maths anxiety in higher classes, is their inability to relate the topics to real life.

They try hard to squeeze in “real life” examples of how the Maths they learn is used in…real life. Unfortunately, after talking about measuring the playground (geometry and mensuration), cooking in the kitchen (ratios), buying grocery (profit and loss..of all things!), and some business concepts (percentages, discounts etc), everyone comes to a sorry stop.

Because that is the reality! It is very hard to give a real-life or, at least, a day-to-day-life example of how they would use quadratic equations, or set theory or calculus! Unless, they are talked about in the context of specific pursuits, it is simply impossible to make these day-to-day life connections. Most of us are never going to build bridges, or become data scientists, or do research in theoretical physics. And we will never, ever, ever, find the height of a pole by measuring its shadow, or worry about when your train cross another which left your destination four hours ago and is traveling at 90 kmph. That’s just not how life works.

When you try to squeeze in these unnatural, never-to-be-used scenarios to show kids why they should learn a topic, they see through you. Most likely, they will never buy your story, and you and/or the subject will most certainly lose a little bit of their respect.

So, how then do we explain to our students, why they are learning these concepts. The answer is simple…it’s the same reason why a cricketer plays table tennis, or lifts weights. It improves other skills. But, first, start with telling that here is a concept which they might never use in the future. But if they did choose a career in Physics, or Nuclear Science or Architecture, or Data Science, now is the time to build that foundation.

And if they don’t know which career they are going to choose yet, now is the time to build a foundation anyway. That’s what it is for. So they don’t have to sweat it, but it’s worth paying attention in class when the topic is being taught.

This, by the way, applies to all subjects. I have never composed a sonnet, leave alone a haiku, never used the Wurtz Reaction (I am not even sure why I remember that name), never built a transformer, never tried to measure my food in terms of calories, leave alone units of ATP it will produce, the list goes on. But, someone has. And, they started learning it in school.

Here are a few more things you can tell children:

1. It helps them expand their thinking. Does everyone need to have “expanded” thinking? Maybe not, but it is worth trying. The wider your “thinking” net is going to spread, the better problem-solving and decision making abilities you will develop.

2. It helps them understand ideas in terms of First Principles. First Principles thinking is very easy to define in words, but hard to execute. Try solving a variety of Maths problems, and it is sure to develop your ability to think in terms of First Principles.

3. It helps them see problems in terms of Maths. Very often, we avoid thinking in “Maths” terms because we are afraid of the subject and the Pandora’s box that train of thought is going to open. But, actually thinking in Maths terms might lead to a correct solution instead of guesstimates. That will only happen when you learn Maths in all its glory.

The most important reason why they should learn the subject is to see the wonder in it. As a thought experiment, just throw a random but real life situation (like the election results of the last elections in your state) and ask them to see the Maths in it. When they do, you will create that sense of wonder. And that is the point at which our job as a teacher begins.

You could also ask other subject teachers to nudge students, when they bring Maths into a topic. For example, cartography or the ratio of Porus’ soldiers vs. Alexander’s. Physics, of course has a lot of Maths in it. As does Chemistry. When they start showing the Maths in the topic, that adds more context than you could do in the Maths class itself.

If it works, repeat often.

It will work.

The Shameless Marketing Plug:

Doing our bit to instill a sense of WOW, we are starting the Countingwell Maths Fest this summer. Starting April 7th and running until mid-June, this is a series of “Maths” competitions that give children a glimpse of the Maths used in various facets of life.

Ranging from Maths used in Airline Operations, to some Maths used in the Shark Tank to Maths used in Restaurants and Hospitals, we show children the business end of Maths, packaged in the fun setting of a Summer Quiz.

I encourage you to have your students go check it out and, when they come back from summer holidays, tell you what they discovered.

Note: Its not free…but its really really cheap. The price of Rs.95 is just to keep it serious.

That’s all for this Month. Have a great summer!

I look forward to hearing stories of innovations and ideas you implemented. You may have read about it in my blogs or tried something of your own. Either way, please do write to me and I will be happy to share them (and credit you) with the world through my blogs.

Contact Me

Nirmal Shah


Nirmal is the Co-Founder of Countingwell. He is on a mission to make Maths learning easy, anxiety-free, and participative for schoolchildren. He is responsible for developing and delivering engaging and effective Math lessons and courses that help students develop confidence and problem-solving skills. He has also designed career and life-oriented courses for schoolchildren that show the relevance and importance of Mathematics in various domains and situations, particularly in the domain in financial literacy and money management.

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