Show Students the Real Purpose of Math
By Matt Kitchen, posted March 14,
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.
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?
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.
want my students to see that mathematics can help them better understand and
describe the world around them.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.