When Am I Ever Going to Use This?
“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.
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?
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
Kevin DykemaNCTM President@kdykema