Answering the Question: When Am I Ever Going to Use This?

  • Answering the Question: When Am I Ever Going to Use This?

    By Matt Kitchen, posted March 28, 2016 –

    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.

    2016-03 Kitchen aupicMatt Kitchen,, is a math teacher in Ohio. He creates lessons for his real-life math lesson company and tweets @mattkitchen.


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    Shalanda Brisbane - 4/22/2016 8:48:07 AM
    I am going back to teaching middle school and this will really help. Even at the high school level you get this question a lot.

    Michael Wiernicki - 3/29/2016 8:08:05 PM
    Matt, You just hit this one out of the park! Middle school students are trying to find their place in the world and when the frustration level gets too high, they do lash out to make themselves feel better. I love the way you address the question at the beginning of the year and set up your response to this question from that introductory experience. Looking forward to stealing your idea. Thanks for sharing and well done! Mike