On mathematical literacy

Thinking aloud about how to tie a collection of mathematical ‘tricks’ and operations together in some sort of logical and rounded whole.

Alex Strick van Linschoten


January 1, 2023

I’m at the half-way point in MU123, the first module in the mathematics degree I’m currently working towards. So far we’ve covered models, properties of numbers, some basic statistics, basic algebra and a starter kit on how to think about graphs.

As the first thing you do in the BSc Mathematics (Q31) The module is intended as a way for people who haven’t thought about or used mathematics for many years to re-engage. It gives a common vocabulary and shared understanding of several topics from different areas, such that eventually those with more (recent) experience can join classes with the late-starters (like myself).

All of the above preamble is a way of saying that I understand why MU123 exists and have some sense of why it’s structured and programmed the way it is, but as a student, it can feel a little scattered. Specifically, it feels like we are being armed with a large bag of tricks. If you show me a graph, I can find the gradient and the y-intercept. If you give me a surd to simplify, I know what to do. Asked to interpret the standard deviation summary for a data set, I have an intuition for what those numbers mean.

All that is good and well, and there’s something satisfying to mastering the individual techniques, much like the early days of learning a new programming language. Some context to the use of the technique is given, but for the most part you are using the techniques to solve specific questions and problems.

The missing piece is the sense of how all the various parts, all the tricks, connect together into the whole game of mathematics. For now, I’m writing this post to acknowledge the sense of there being a ‘lack’ in the programme but with the hope and anticipation that this will improve the further down the road we go.

I should also probably take some responsibility for my own education. In particular, there are probably things I can be doing to make the connections and links myself based on how I’m understanding things as we go. The Open University programme for Maths very much seems to take an ‘a la carte’ approach which means that the onus is more on the student to fill in the gaps. This blog should probably serve as a record of my efforts to make those connections and fill in those gaps.