Tool WA-1: Mathematics in the world of work

For this tool you will need the following resources:

  • WA-1 PowerPoint
  • Handout 1: Mathematics in the world of work

The aim of this tool is to introduce teachers to examples of the use of mathematics in the world of work download_powerpointso they can discuss how workplace mathematics differs from school mathematics. The tool shows just a few instances of how mathematics looks in a specific workplaces. These examples do not cover the full range since, as research demonstrates, mathematics in workplaces is often adapted or transformed and becomes bespoke to the specific workplace with its required outcomes.

Briefly discuss with the teachers that mathematics, as it is used in the workplace, can look very different to the way it appears in school. Often the mathematical processes are hidden in work routines and not clearly visible, even to those carrying out the work. It seems that what is taught and learned in school mathematics is separate from workplace mathematics and has little utility or purpose other than in classrooms to enable students to gain qualifications.


Ask the teachers to work in pairs, for about half an hour, to read the accounts of the use of mathematics in different workplaces from the Handout: Mathematics in the world of work. Ask them to discuss how they see the use of mathematics in workplaces and identify differences between the way it us taught and used in school compared to the use of mathematics in the workplace. They should make notes of their ideas. (Note that the first account is quite substantial but the others are much briefer. Omit the first description if you are short of time.)

Bring the group back together and ask them to share their responses. They may come up with a range of suggestions – it will be interesting to compare their thinking with what we know from research in this field. Wake and Williams (2002), researchers in England, have identified the following important differences that you can use to stimulate further discussion.
In workplaces:

  • use of new technology requires the use of mathematical thinking in the workplace, but workers also continue to make use of low technology;
  • typically mathematics only makes sense when considered as integrated parts of larger, purposeful, sustained activities, as opposed to the short fragmented mathematical tasks one often sees in classrooms;
  • workers generally see mathematics as a ‘tool for the job’;
  • expert use of mathematics often becomes ‘fused’ with the reality of the workplace – this means that the worker sees and thinks not about the mathematics but about aspects of the work (to outsiders without in-depth knowledge of the workplace this means that understanding the mathematics as a model of the workplace situation is difficult);
  • there are many differences in conventions and notation when working mathematically.

There are many accounts within research papers of the use of mathematics in
workplace situations. Those quoted in the handout can be found in the report below by Wake and Williams. Some further research accounts are also listed below.

In the report for the Sutton Trust by Hodgen and Marks (2014) it is suggested that

“The curriculum should also include more ‘simple maths in complex settings’, by providing students with problem-solving opportunities involving ‘messy’ contexts that do not have straightforward solutions.”

Before next time each of the group should be encouraged to read at least one of these reports (the references are given below) and be ready to discuss the main points that affect what mathematics they teach and how they teach it so that will be useful in the workplace.


Bakker, A. & FitzSimons, G. (eds) (2014). Special Issue: Educational Studies in Mathematics, 86(2), 151-305.

FitzSimons, G. E. (2013). Doing Mathematics in the Workplace: A Brief Review of Selected Literature. Adults Learning Mathematics, 8(1), 7-19.

Hodgen, J., & Marks, R. (2013). The Employment Equation: Why Our Young People Need More Maths for Today’s Jobs. Sutton Trust.

Williams, J., & Wake, G. (2007). Black boxes in workplace mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 64(3), 317-343.