Show Students the Real Purpose of Math

  • Show Students the Real Purpose of Math

    By Matt Kitchen, posted March 14, 2016 –

    When I speak at a conference on the topic of real-life math, the biggest point I try to get across to teachers is that there is a purpose for math beyond the classroom. This purpose rarely gets taught to students, and students rarely experience it because they are caught up in learning standards and then being assessed on them. To many students, the purpose of math is to learn a skill that leads to a grade on a report card. 

    Students rarely question why they are taking English. Reading and writing are everywhere. Students rarely question why they must take science because they are learning about the world around them. Social studies can occasionally be a problem, but students often hear or see the Edmund Burke quote, “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” So what about mathematics?

    I begin by acknowledging that this question can be slightly controversial. There are people who can write for pages that math is an art form and contains an inherent beauty, so the purpose is wrapped in its beauty. There are people who would say that math teaches logic and problem solving, and therein lies its true purpose. There are probably many others, but for myself and what I want my students to see, it is none of these. 

    I want my students to see that mathematics can help them better understand and describe the world around them.

    There is real-life application of almost every form of mathematics. It does not mean that every student will use every piece of mathematics that they learn, but it does mean we can show them how we can use that bit of mathematics to understand and explain something around us. I have spent the last ten years producing math lessons based on real life to help my students and now countless others around the world experience this. Let me give you some examples.

    I want my students to learn to write slope-intercept form equations, but even more, I want them to see that you can use that equation to make projections in business when you know your profit per customer and a monthly loss. Then students can say, "They probably shouldn't open this business if they need 200 customers a day to break even." I want them to know how to make complex ratios, but I would much prefer that they use complex ratios to help them understand how much of a pop song is the chorus. Then they can say, "Oh, that's why the chorus gets stuck in our heads." I want my students to be able to solve two-step equations, but even more I would love them to use those equations to decrypt messages and then try to crack someone else's message. Then my students can say, "Oh, that is how encryption works" and "algebra really is used for something."

    I want my students to understand that every time I turn on shuffle on my music player, I don't sit down with a pen and pad of paper and calculate the probability of my favorite song coming on next, but I could, so I have them do it. Then we talk about it. Now my students have a taste of what math can be all about. You and your students can do the same. Then, maybe next time when they are listening and thinking "What are the chances?” they will actually know.

    I implore you to show your students the true purpose of math. Help them see that math is here to help them better understand and explain the world around them. Use real-life math lessons like mine and others out there to help them see this. Your students will be better for it, and you might just enjoy teaching even more than you normally do. I know I always do.

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