Algebra class, first few days into second quarter, 2004. I remember this because it was the last time that a student had asked me this question in class. His question: When are we going to use this in real life?
At his parents' urgent request, he was transferred from Algebra Readiness to Algebra at the beginning of second quarter. He struggled mightily with basic arithmetic, thus his initial placement. I knew he asked the question because he was lost in what we were doing, especially having missed the first quarter of Algebra. But his question was his way of throwing it back at me — I heard it more as, "I don't know how to do this, but what's the point of learning this stupid thing anyway?"
He transferred back to Algebra Readiness by the end of second quarter.
I presented a session on Problem Solving this past weekend at the South Dakota Annual Math and Science Conference, and a teacher asked me how I would respond to a student with the same question. I gave my best brief answer that I knew, realizing that not one student has asked me since that time ten years ago. Yesterday Mike Lawler shared a post on how he and his two sons had worked on a problem that I'd tweeted. Mike also mentioned sharing this problem with a principal on their dog walking, and the principal commented, albeit jokingly, that the problem had no real-life connection. Then the first thing that popped up on my Twitter feed this morning was Chris Robinson's tweet of his post When Will I Ever Need This? Chris writes, "students resort to this proclamation when they're lost conceptually and don't understand how to connect their present situation (learning) with prior knowledge and level of understanding." I agree. I also agree with Chris that boredom is another reason.
So I'm carving out a small space here to answer this question because I'm wondering why the hell are we — math teachers — the only ones to get this question from students. I don't know of any English or Social Studies teacher who gets asked this question.
I spent many seasons watching my two boys at football practice. Aside from practicing their specific positional drills, they had to do sit-ups and push-ups, high-knees and karaokes, bear crawls and crab walks. None of the kids ever asked their coaches when real-life crab walking might come in handy.
I remember having to do sentence diagrams in school and thinking this might save my life one day. Such scenario:
I did my best, praying Cranky would approve.
Cranky person (comes up from behind me): You! Drop and give me a diagram of this sentence or I'll blow your head off!
Me (arms raised in the air to show my English teacher had prepared me for this): Ummm... What's the sentence?
Cranky: Try this one, The bored students were considering shooting spit wads.
M: May I borrow a pen?
C: Will a pencil do?
M: That's even better. I might make a mistake.
C: Very nice.
M: Oh, thank you very much! My handwriting is normally much better though... Arms are still sore from yesterday's bear crawls that I had to show another assailant.
Our high school History teacher taught by telling "war stories" all the time. He was funny and made me look forward to an hour of learning mostly about dead white men. I enjoyed writing poems too in English and made no qualms that neither war stories nor haiku poems would likely add to my real-life toolbox.
Writing a haiku
Does not need to explain why
Same with equation
When are we going to use this in real life?
You're using it NOW, dear. Doing mathematics is like exercising. It's mental conditioning. Sometimes it gets boring, sometimes it's difficult. If it gets boring, you either have mastered it and need something more challenging, or you don't have a clue of what it's asking for and just need a more level appropriate challenge. Or it's boring because someone has made you watch and take notes on the third video of the same topic and you'd rather poke needles in your eyes. And about it being difficult — I hope it is. Not the level of difficulty of having to do 50 burpees followed by 50 box jumps followed by 50 death squats. But it should be difficult in the sense that you aren't quite sure initially how to do it but you know it's worth trying because you're interested in solving it. The math task is making you think, inviting you to try a different strategy, daring you to be flexible — this is the NOW work you're doing to know you're alive.
You don't hate math. You can't. Everything that you love requires math. You must mean you hate school math. And that I believe; and I'm working hard to change your mind. In Edward Frenkel's Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, he writes:
I sometimes think that the best way to change the public attitude to math would be to stick a red label on everything that uses mathematics. "Math inside." There would be a label on every computer... on every airline ticket, every telephone, every car, every airplane, every traffic light, every vegetable...
You go to the movies? Do you like the special effects? Star Wars, Lord of the Rings? Mathematics. The first full-length computer-animated movie, Toy Story, led to the publication of about twenty research papers on math...
If anything makes use of math, it's the Internet. The main search engine at the moment, Google, was founded on a mathematical method... It's based on matrix algebra, probability theory, and the combinatorics of networks.
Modern communications systems simply would not work without a huge quantity of math. Coding theory, Fourier analysis, signal processing...
I want to tell you about all this to expose the sides of mathematics we rarely get to see: inspiration, profound ideas, startling revelations. Mathematics is a way to break the barriers of the conventional, an expression of unbounded imagination in search for truth.
Mathematics is as much a part of our cultural heritage as art, literature, and music. As humans, we have a hunger to discover something new, reach new meaning, understand better the universe and our place in it.
There is a common fallacy that one has to study mathematics for years to appreciate it. Some people think that most people have an innate learning disability when it comes to math.
One of my teachers, the great Israel Gelfand, used to say, "People think they don't understand math, but it's all about how you explain it to them. If you ask a drunkard what number is larger, 2/3 or 3/5, he won't be able to tell you. But if you rephrase the question: what is better, 2 bottles of vodka for 3 people or 3 bottles of vodka for 5 people, he will tell you right away: 2 bottles for 3 people, of course."
There are many Music Appreciation and Art Appreciation course offerings. We should institute one in Mathematics Appreciation. Dan Meyer's recent post Culture Beats Curriculum makes my heart sing because if you know me in person or via this blog, hopefully you also know that any set curriculum and its cousin, the pacing guide, take a back seat to my students' learning through problem solving and to their opportunities to appreciate and marvel at the inherit splendors of mathematics. It's a culture we've created together. It's sacred.
Instead of waiting for When Will I Ever Need This? to come up in the middle of our favorite lesson, let's address it on Day 1 of school. Let's show (not tell) our students how beautiful and useful math is. How fun and challenging learning math can be and should be. Show them a math video and read them a passage from a math book that make us cry.
And when our kids need to do something they might consider boring — like a worksheet of skills practice on dividing mixed numbers, solving systems of equations, factoring polynomials, integrating by substitution — let's beat them to it and be the first to call it boring. Kids sometimes like to prove their teachers wrong, so they might disagree with us and say, "It's kinda fun actually."