Having just spent some time traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded of some long road trips taken during my childhood. My siblings and I took turns asking the eternal question “Are we there yet?” sometimes as often as every five minutes. No matter how far it was to our destination, my father would eventually answer “Ask me again when it’s dark,” an understandable attempt at getting us to stop asking.
I can’t remember if it worked, but after spending several years in mathematics classrooms, I definitely have a better understanding of how he was feeling. It seemed like every time I introduced a new concept to a class, another student would echo “When am I ever going to use this?”
Students asked this question, especially when the concept was challenging, almost as often as we asked my dad if we had arrived at grandma’s house yet. In the absence of convincing real-world contexts in the curriculum, I was tempted to come up with a pat answer to avoid the question. But I really didn’t want to disregard the question entirely and imply that it was unimportant, so I came up with various answers, ranging from specific applications to general mental training:
“You use percents to find out how much a sale item costs, or how much interest you will have to pay on a car or house loan.”
“At some point you will get a paycheck and you’ll want to know if your boss is treating you fairly, or if someone made a mistake and didn’t pay you enough.”
“You won’t use it directly, but it will develop your reasoning skills and the logical part of your brain that helps you form arguments, which are valuable in many aspects of life.”
In one of my pre-algebra classes, students asked this question so often that I brought in a police officer, a nurse, and someone who worked in a bank to describe and demonstrate ways they use math in their jobs. Then I had students write a short essay about another way in which the math they were learning could be used in a specific profession (to cries of “Miss Van Vliet, this is math class! Why do we have to write an essay?!” . . . but that is a subject for another day).
I often got tired of telling students when they were going to use math, because I felt there had to be a way to answer their questions that would more readily engage them.
Offering examples was helpful, and percents led to the most readily accessible examples. Since students are often in stores spending their allowance or hard-earned cash, they understand why they need to know how sale prices and taxes work. After all, they wouldn’t want to come up short at the register.
Yet offering examples and even bringing in career professionals often did not have the level of impact I needed to convince my students that I wasn’t just making the answer up. I needed my students to experience the mathematics in a different context. But how?
From my experience, students more readily understand a concept when problems are embedded in a real context rather than working with an artificial set of data points. Take data and statistics, for instance. I sometimes wonder if it would be better to study statistics in conjunction with a science or history class, tying it to the other subjects they are studying. After all, students often collect and analyze data when conducting experiments, and in many history classes they are asked to evaluate data collected over certain years or populations.
Yes, yes, I know. . .That requires extra work and collaboration with other teachers; and with the curriculum laid out in different disciplines, not all teachers are teaching the same concepts at the same time.
In an ideal world, subject matter wouldn’t be so divided, curriculum in general would be interrelated, and applications of a concept would be apparent by the context in which it is presented. Then the answer to “When am I going to use this?” would be clear and thus no longer necessary.
So, I ask again. . .“Are we there yet?”