When are we ever going to use this? (Spoiler Alert: You probably won’t)
You know the question. You’ve asked the question. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of the question. “When are we ever going to use this?” The refrain of bored and frustrated math students everywhere speaks volumes about how we think about and perceive math; and our response exposes our presuppositions about math’s worth and why students should study it.
Did you ever notice this question is mostly reserved for math classrooms? You don’t often hear it in English, History, Science, or Art rooms. I’m not saying students don’t complain about having to study other subjects, they do; but the way they complain is different. They ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” There’s a subtle but important difference there. We often ask when we’re going to use Math, not why we have to learn it. The question itself implies that math only has value in so far as it has a specific use. We see math as a tool, rather than something with intrinsic value. A screwdriver, rather than a sunrise.
So when students ask this question there’s more at stake than just the momentum of the class. It’s an opportunity to change the way they think about the subject, to redefine it as something with intrinsic worth, rather than just a useful tool.
So how do we answer? Well meaning and devoted math teachers everywhere have long answered this question in essentially one of two ways:
- To pass the test, so you earn good grades, so you get into a good college, so you get a good job (you know, with benefits). Motivated to learn math yet? Me neither.
- Everybody uses math every day! Carpenters use it to make houses, accountants use it to do taxes, chefs use it when they modify recipes, hairdressers use it to mix colors, and the list goes on and on. Posters hang on the walls of classrooms showing different careers and how you use math in each of them.
Answers that fall under the second category, while well intentioned, are an attempt to justify our subject with some pretty lame reasons. They play directly into the supposition of the question that math is valuable only in so far as it is useful; and if we’re honest, the math in most of those professions has been covered by the time you get through middle school. Trying to justify math in this way feels like trying to justifying astronomy by citing tide tables. Sure they’re useful, but there are deeper cosmic puzzles to uncover than tides. So how should we answer this question?
I always answer it honestly: “you probably won’t.”
The first time my students hear that I get a mix of reactions from open mouths to “I knew it all along” smirks and everything in between. I have a few qualifiers to that intentionally provocative answer. I tell my students some of you may grow up and really use math everyday; you may be a chemist, and engineer, or an architect, but even if that’s the case the math you use probably won’t be what we learn in this class. It will be the math you learn in college, or grad school, or on the job once you’re hired; but most of us will work in professions where we’ll rarely (if ever) be called upon to do anything beyond elementary or potentially early middle school math. So, why did I go back to school to become a math teacher? Why dedicate my adult life to teaching stuff that most of my students will never use?
Here’s my answer to “when are we ever going to use this?”
Have you ever seen a football team running through tires? Even if only on TV or in a movie, you know what I’m talking about, right? They put out a line of tires and run through them as fast as they can one after another. Now let me paint you a picture. It’s early February, Superbowl day, and it’s the most epic matchup you can imagine; the two biggest teams that everybody wants to see pitted against each other. The clock runs out and the game is tied, what do we do? We can’t have a tie for the biggest title in (American) Football. Now imagine the referees set up a long line of tires, and each team has to run through it relay-race style. The fastest team wins… and the crowd goes wild! Literally. There would be rioting in the streets- nobody would allow the winner of the game to be decided in this way. In fact, nobody would allow any aspect of the game to be decided this way. I think we can agree that there will never be a football game where the players are asked to run through tires. Do you see where I’m going with this?
If football teams around the country run through tires during practice, and no football team will ever run through tires in a game, WHY do they do it?
Running through tires helps athletes develop foot-speed, foot-eye coordination, balance, aerobic conditioning, precision, etc. In other words, running through tires helps develop many skills that make an athlete a better football player. They don’t run through tires to get better at running through tires, they do it to develop the skills they will need to play the game at their highest potential.
By now I hope you realize that the athletes are your students, the tires are math, and the game… is life.
For most of our students, mathematics is running through tires. If you love math like me, that might raise the hair on your neck a bit. For me (and for some of my students) math isn’t a means to an end, it’s the exciting, intriguing, surprising, wonderful end in itself- math is the game! In so far as it’s possible, I’d love for all my students to have that experience, but the reality is that most of them won’t. For most of them, math is tires, and that’s OK. Because running through these tires builds some serious skills. Doing mathematics builds creative thinking, problem solving, the ability to make a argument, and (just as important) to see logical flaws in an argument. Doing mathematics helps us to see the unstated premises in peoples statements, and pull out the important information in a sea of available information. In short, we’re building some serious life skills when we do mathematics (at least when we do it properly, but that is a subject for another time).
So, next time someone asks that question, won’t you consider giving them an honest answer? Don’t try to validate math with lame reasons out of a textbook, let’s be honest about what we’re doing here. We’re learning math because in order to learn math you need to develop a host of skills that will be immeasurably useful to you as an adult. To the extent that you learn those skills, you’ll be a more valuable member of society, better equipped to participate in a democracy where we face increasingly complex problems, with increasingly complex answers. So let’s celebrate the power of what we get from mathematics, the skills that running through these “tires” develops within us, and let’s be honest with our students when they ask. You just may find they appreciate the honesty, and buy into the course more than before.