Advanced mathematical study and the development of conditional reasoning skills
2015-12-15T14:16:23Z (GMT) by
Since the time of Plato, philosophers and educational policy-makers have assumed that the study of mathematics improves one's general ‘thinking skills’. Today, this argument, known as the ‘Theory of Formal Discipline’ is used in policy debates to prioritize mathematics in school curricula. But there is no strong research evidence which justifies it. We tested the Theory of Formal Discipline by tracking the development of conditional reasoning behavior in students studying post-compulsory mathematics compared to post-compulsory English literature. In line with the Theory of Formal Discipline, the mathematics students did develop their conditional reasoning to a greater extent than the literature students, despite them having received no explicit tuition in conditional logic. However, this development appeared to be towards the so-called defective conditional understanding, rather than the logically normative material conditional understanding. We conclude by arguing that Plato may have been correct to claim that studying advanced mathematics is associated with the development of logical reasoning skills, but that the nature of this development may be more complex than previously thought.