Answering the Question: When Am I Ever Going to Use This?
By Matt Kitchen, posted March 28,
When I speak at conferences on using real-life math, I usually
begin by talking about the question in the title. Even though I make a large
effort to incorporate real-life math activities into my monthly curriculum, I
still get asked this question. But to answer the question, you first have to
understand where the question is coming from. Although there are slight
deviations with every student, I have found that about 90 percent of the time
this question comes from the same place. Frustration.
To answer this question, you first have to understand what the students
are feeling at that moment. They are currently frustrated that they cannot
solve the problem you told them they need to solve, or they are having great
difficulty doing so. In the midst of this difficulty, they are becoming
frustrated, and their natural reaction is to deflect the importance of what
they are doing so that they feel better about not being able to solve it. This
is where you come in.
You need to recognize the frustration and gracefully sidestep
the question to better understand what they are doing. As teachers, this is
what we should be experienced in doing, helping to differentiate to our
students’ needs. However, when this question comes up, I find that many
teachers get flustered that they do not have a ready-made response and either
become frustrated with the student or completely ignore the cry for help. This
cannot happen. Instead, here is how I suggest you tackle this question, which
has worked for me numerous times.
I begin the first day of school by talking to my students about
two kinds of math: math that I use on a weekly basis outside the classroom
(percentages, proportional reasoning, and so on) and the math that I personally
almost never use outside the classroom (simplifying expressions, finding the
slope of a line, and so on). I am very comfortable telling them this because I
think most students already understand this fact. I follow it up by telling
them that even if I don't use these mathematical concepts on a daily basis,
they can help us learn more about the world around us (see my last blog post).
I spend the next couple of days doing activities with my
students that show them that we can use math to help us better understand and
explain the world around us. I then promise them that I will continue to show
them how we can use concepts learned throughout the year to find their
real-life significance. Building a real-life rhythm in class, in which you
describe how concepts can help them understand more about the world, will help
show your students that you genuinely care about answering the question, “What can
we use this math for in real life?”
Now, when a student is frustrated and asks, “When am I ever
going to use this?” you can respond by saying, “I know you’re frustrated with
this, but you know I care about showing where math helps us in the real world.
Right now, this is about me helping you get better at this. Can you show me
where your struggle is starting?” From there, you can launch into the
assistance that will help your student build confidence and allow him or her to
come down from the frustration.
Be calm and be prepared to help your students. Don’t take
offense. They are simply frustrated middle schoolers lashing out because they
are struggling to get better. Help them get better and then show them later where
that math exists in the real world when you are prepared to do so.
Matt Kitchen, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a math teacher in Ohio. He creates
lessons for his real-life math lesson company www.MakeMathMore.com and tweets @mattkitchen.