“But Ms. Teacher, When Will I Ever Use This In Real Life?”

Shower thoughts for today: I was thinking about a post I saw on Facebook not too long ago that was interviewing the contestants for some pageant or another and asking them “should math be taught in public schools.”  I’m 90% sure the post was a joke (oh god please I hope it was a joke) and most of the contestants were dolled up and saying things like “um…no….why would we need math…” with the one ‘manly-dressed’ contestant going “well DUH are you stupid or something? Of course we need math.”  And that combined with how my math students reacted during my year of teaching led me to want to maybe make a video or something talking to young people about why they do need to learn math.  I’m going to use my blog right here to kind of list out the reasons and think through things so at the least I get this out somewhere and also hopefully I don’t forget it and maybe one day do make this video.

I don’t think I ever heard this questions sincerely asked but many students tend to plague their math teachers with “where will I use this in the future?”  I had a teacher in high school who had a poster up with all the places you might use Algebra 2 outside of school but I honestly don’t remember what was on there.  I tried to talk to my students about what the fundamentals of math meant.  But I want to break this into two parts.

Where are you going to use this math?

So maybe you don’t want to be an engineer or a mathematician when you grow up.  I thought mathematician sounded like a boring job right up to when I declared my double major in math.  It sounds like a job where you sit at a desk all day typing numbers into a computer right? I’m not going to go into how NOT TRUE that stereotype is because I’m digressing.  But yeah, maybe that’s not what you want to do.  Maybe you don’t need to know how to find the area of a square or write an equation based on a real world situation.  It’s actually really possible you won’t need the technical know-how once you get out of college.  The thing that many students are missing while they hate on math and hate on having to learn it is that this is America and we’re supposed to be the land of OPPORTUNITY.  Oldsters like to go on about how youngsters don’t understand the opportunities they’ve been given just by being born here and now.  Free school, education is expected and given to all, young people don’t realize this is something that isn’t available in some places of the world.  The truth is, maybe YOU won’t work somewhere that needs these technical math skills, but there shouldn’t be a single child who grows up and says “well I wanted to be an engineer, but I never had the chance to learn the math and stuff I needed to do it.”  Even if you don’t plan to use math right out of high school, if 10 years down the road you suddenly realize that math is cool and the world couldn’t function without it, you have that background knowledge.  You CAN wake up one day and say “I want to be an engineer” and go to college and become one because you’ve had the opportunity to get the basics in when you were younger.

The other part of that answer is that math isn’t just math.  It isn’t just numbers and letters and laws.  Math is logic. Go out and ask the adults around you if they ever have to use logic at their jobs, or if they ever get extremely pissed off at someone who can’t seem to use logic and keeps doing things stupidly. I’d bet money that most of them do in fact use logic. It’s harder to see the logic as you get older and the math becomes more advanced.  It’s easy to look at blocks and see that 1 block + 1 block = 2 blocks and so on.  It’s easy to see that you can divide 10 blocks into 5 groups of 2 (although sadly many students AREN’T LEARNING THAT THIS IS WHAT DIVISION MEANS anymore).  When you get to functions the math gets trickier but really the important thing is that you’ll start to see things like if I know something is always going to get 1 bigger than how much I put in, it’s going to get bigger slowly as I put in more versus if what I put in is always doubled the number will get REALLY bigger really fast as I put in more.  What I just said there is functions.  Even when math looks crazy, if you have a good teacher and if your teacher has time to explain things properly, it usually relates to some small easily seen logical thing.

Sadly, the educational system in America can be pretty terrible depending on where you are and parents aren’t always very supportive about subjects that they struggled to learn themselves. I never really felt like I had time to explain why things worked like they did, even in my classes that moved at a slower pace and were only expected to cover half of the material.  When I took time to try and go back and explain fundamentals that had been missed when these students were learning math in elementary and middle school I was fussed at by the administration for not keeping up with the pacing guide set forth by the Virginia Department of Education.  There was “no time” to go back and reteach things that students had not learned properly, but then we (the teachers) were blamed when the students could not grasp the next lesson which was based on this prior knowledge.  There are students who are streamlined through the system and once it is determined they excel at learning they are all put in a class together for the whole time they’re in the public school system.  7th graders are now learning algebra where we couldn’t take it until 8th grade at the earliest but at the same time there are students who are missing the fundamentals because they don’t intuitively understand how numbers work.

I didn’t continue teaching because most of the students who have been left behind no longer care about the math.  They don’t want to learn and will do all they can not to listen to the teacher.  I had students who were brilliant and understood everything spending all of their time goofing off and trying to color in the desks because ‘Fuck the System.’  I had students who wanted to learn but couldn’t stay focused on the math and on the person next to them trying to distract them the whole time.  I had a student who purposefully failed every class but mine because he didn’t want to go on to the next grade for some reason.  I had a student who spent the whole year doing nothing until he was sent to alternative school.  While there he brought his grade up and realized that he did actually know how to do the work, came back and was doing almost everything perfectly (he did occasionally forget homework and he couldn’t seem to stay seated for a whole class period) until the school kept checking him for drugs and checking him for drugs and finally he got fed up and didn’t try anymore because what was the point when the rest of the school was against him.  I know as a teacher I’m supposed to reach out and touch the lives of the students but really, you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.  I think I helped a few.  I think being a young person telling them that math is important was different for some of them and made them think a bit.

And I know these last two paragraphs are off topic from my original post but I really feel like this is part of the argument too.  Students need to want to learn the math, but we also need to make sure that teachers are teaching it.  The thing that the VDOE doesn’t realize, and that anyone who isn’t a mathematician doesn’t realize, is that math isn’t just memorizing formulas.  It’s not easy to just lay down the information and say “they have to get this by such and such date and then be able to apply it to other things and real world events.”  Math is a logical thing that some people need to take their time on and think about.  It’s easy to say 10 years down the road “well duh 5 x 5 = 25” but do you really know WHY that is true? Can you explain it to me? The fact that you can’t divide by 0 is a well known math fact but I didn’t know until recently WHY that was true.  It makes total sense once you actually think about what division is and how we can divide something into groups of 0 and always have more leftover forever but nobody ever bothered to explain that to me.  Math shouldn’t just be taught as facts to be memorized, but as the logic it’s supposed to be a basis for.


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