When Am I Ever Going to Use This?

  • When Am I Ever Going to Use This?

    March 2023

    “When am I ever going to use this?” All of us have likely heard those dreaded words in the mathematics classroom. When I hear this question, it causes me to pause and reflect on the purpose of learning for the concept we are currently working on. It reminds me that I have to continually work hard to help students see the relevance of what they are learning. I find my students ask this question more frequently when I haven’t provided any context—either real-life or mathematical—or if I have taught it as a rote procedure to memorize. However, when I embed the concept into a real-life situation or mathematical context and have the students begin to make sense of and reason through the problem, they do not question the relevance as often.

    Students must see a purpose for learning mathematics; one of which is understanding and critiquing our world. They need to see that mathematics was developed by real people to address and solve real issues. Quite honestly, this goes past needing this—they deserve this! Students deserve to see how mathematics is used to address actual issues and solve real problems. Mathematics is not a stagnant set of rules and procedures to memorize but rather a tool to explore, understand, and respond to challenges.

    If we are being honest, for some concepts we teach, we must—at best—contrive a connection to our students’ lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean those concepts have little value, but perhaps the algorithmic development and symbolic manipulation can be deemphasized to allow time to teach other concepts and skills related to understanding our world. We must recognize the world we live in looks drastically different than 20, 30, 40, or more years ago, and yet we still emphasize some topics as much today as we did back then. Similarly, the world and the interests of our current students will evolve in the next 10, 20, or 30 years, and we need to equip them with the skills to mathematically interrogate and make sense of the world around them.

    Technology affords us the opportunity to replace or deemphasize some procedural skills to allow more time for students to analyze, make sense of, and apply the mathematics. For example, should we really be spending as much time on factoring polynomials or rationalizing denominators as we currently do? How do we make room for fluency with being able to add and subtract numbers of all formats along with recognizing how operations present themselves in problems or contexts?

    Rethinking and reprioritizing what we teach allows us time to include topics that are currently excluded or not emphasized enough. For example, think of all the bogus graphs from the past few years. I want students and a society who can identify what is misleading and draw accurate conclusions based on data provided rather than listening to a talking head’s summary. Our society depends on humans who are able to think deeply, justify reasoning by explaining their thinking, and address issues using mathematics. The time is now to reexamine what we teach in mathematics to better meet the needs of our students living in today’s world!

    Kevin Dykema
    NCTM President