‘What Is Math For? Why Do I Have to Learn This?’ Teachers Share Their Answers

By Madeline Will — August 21, 2017 2 min read
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It’s a question that most math teachers have probably heard. Why do I have to learn this? What is math even for?

On Twitter, I asked math teachers from various grade levels to share how they answer that question. Here’s what they said:

I also asked a handful of math teachers to share their answers more in-depth. Here’s what they said:

Nicole Smith, a high school math teacher in North Carolina, said she tries to proactively address this question before students even ask:

I look for connections between upcoming topics and the real world to show students how the skill is used outside of this class. Our school media specialist has been invaluable in helping find current and historical uses for skills practiced in my courses. Another proactive approach I like to use is to pose a problem in class which I know can be solved using the skill I want students to learn. In trying to find a solution to a problem, students articulate the specifics of what they need to find a solution and then they go about gathering information and looking for ways in which others may have solved a similar problem in the past. Sometimes I don't have an easy answer for the question as it applies to a particular topic or skill, but I try to stress daily how the study of math and the productive struggle I encourage in class strengthens students' minds and makes them better problem solvers."

Here’s what John Trout McCrann, a high school math teacher in New York and a blogger for Education Week Teacher, said he tells students when they ask why they need to learn a math concept:

You don't. We all know successful people who don't know how to factor a trinomial with a leading integer that doesn't equal one or derive the general form of the equation of an ellipse. So, why indeed? Of course, you will use very little of the specific content knowledge and/or skills developed in one particular high school class a great deal as a professional and in your daily adult life. Very few of you will ever write literary analysis papers or lab reports after you are done with school. What we learn when we really stop to think about high school academic programs is they ask us to learn specific content and skills in the hopes that this process will help us develop orientations and habits of mind ... Math skills and content provide a particularly clean context in which to practice the kinds of problem solving and reasoning that we inevitably use (or misuse) in and out of class, during adulthood and as you move towards it. Deep understanding about the process of solving an equation helps everyone understand how to create systems to solve problems at work, in their families, in our world. The kinds of problem-solving strategies you might use to tackle a big project, develop a more efficient engine, or address an issue that's arisen between you and your partner. Deep understandings about shapes help everyone understand how to reason spatially, a skill that you may one day apply as a designer or as you lay out the furniture in your first house or apartment."

Justin Minkel, an elementary teacher in Arkansas, said he uses simulations to make math fun and relevant for his young students:

My 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders use measurement and geometry to engage in engineering design challenges like building skyscrapers out of straws or designing a parachute for a gummy bear. They also do an economics simulation where they design, produce, and sell a product, which incorporates multiplication, percents, and addition and subtraction, along with concepts about profit, advertising costs, and supply and demand. We link these simulations to professions like engineering, architecture, business, and advertising, and the consequences feel more real and relevant to the students than a letter grade does."

Finally, I looked through our archives to see what other advice Education Week has published that will help teachers answer that question. Here are a few pieces worth reading:

  • John Urschel, the former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens and a mathematician, wrote that he wants “students to see that math extends far past the confines of the classroom and into everyday life. I also want them to appreciate that math is cool.” He shares examples of some of the “hundreds of decisions that are informed by our quantitative judgment.” (Maybe this has more weight for students coming from a former star football player?)
  • One teacher shares how she taught multiplication by using art. She writes: “When these students are formally assessed on this skill, they will think back to the time they created the art work. They won’t be as likely to think back to the time they completed a worksheet.”
  • Opinion blogger Larry Ferlazzo asked educators how they taught math besides “drill the skill.” José Vilson, a math middle school teacher in New York City, responded that “math shouldn’t be limited to a disconnected set of rules and jargon that doesn’t seem to mean much of anything. We should try to give everything we teach a context, or at least a story as to why we came up with the curriculum we did.”
  • Some teachers are incorporating “social justice” issues into math class to relate lessons to students’ communities and personal lives. For example, one teacher in Minneapolis has her students collect various social data about city neighborhoods that relate to race, income, crime, and policing. The students use statistical methods to analyze the data.

Teachers, share your answers to the question “Why do I have to learn this?” in the comments below.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.