Sunday, August 31, 2014

When am I ever going to use this?

As a teacher, I hate this question. For years, I would stumble with the answer, especially when I taught Algebra 1. As a former engineer, I could typically think of ways that I used math, but how does a lawyer, a nurse, or an animal shelter worker use algebra? I have no clue. And like an idiot, I would always try to construct some kind of answer that would never be satisfying to the student.

The real issue with this question is that the student only wants one answer. They want to hear you say, "You know what? You're right. You'll never use this. I've been wasting your time with this nonsense. Maybe I should just teach you how to pay your bills and call it a day."

Students don't want to hear about how every single profession uses box-and-whisker plots. The reason they ask this question in the first place is because they are frustrated. They don't get what you're trying to teach. And they're just looking for an excuse to give up. If the same students were learning FOIL, and could produce a right answer every time, they probably won't complain about never using it (even though they probably never will).

If they don't have to struggle very much to learn something, then they don't need excuses not to learn it.


Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a hero of mine. I even got a print of him to hang in my classroom. You can buy it here.

I've heard him talk about how students will often lament about how they will never use some of the things they've learned in school. Here is a panel discussion where he talks about this. In this video, he goes on to say how working on problems in physics (and math) helps rewire the brain and prepares it to solve other problems. And understanding how things work will lay the groundwork for innovation. This is exactly what most business owners want from their employees. They need problem-solvers. They need innovators.

On the first day of school, I talk about this with my students. I explain that the jobs of the future require us to be innovators and inventors. I then show them this newspaper clipping from the local newspaper:

Each year, kindergartners are asked what they'd like to be when they grow up. I read each of these responses with my students. I don't hesitate to tell them that I also want to be Elsa from Frozen. And then I point out Emmett's entry. Emmett wants to be an inventor. I explain to them that I'm really excited about this because Emmett happens to be my son (which would help explain this child's fascination with Back to the Future). I tell them I'm excited because, even at an early age, Emmett wants to learn about math and science. The motivation is there. He is already inventing things and experimenting with electronics sets.

There is only one problem with Emmett. This summer, we went to Disney World and one of his favorite attractions was the Jedi Training Academy. Basically, they give you a light saber, throw a brown robe on you, and after some light saber "training", you face off against Darth Vader. When it was Emmett's turn to fight Darth Vader, he seemed very reluctant to fight. I wasn't sure what was wrong, but after it was over, he explained that he didn't want to fight Darth Vader. He always sympathizes with the villains in movies. He wants to join the Dark Side. What's troubling is, I fear that some day he will take his love of invention, and use it for evil.

So, while I would like all of my students to be intrinsically motivated to learn about math and science, I am really worried that Emmett may someday destroy the Earth. We need smart people to stop him. And that's my new rationale for why students need to learn everything in math class.


  1. Cute rationale. What advice would you give to change one's classroom so students would experience innovation and inventiveness rather than just being told a need exists? I struggle with this.

    1. I think there's innovation any time students are approaching a problem they've never seen before and are not immediately given the tools to solve it. A lot of that comes from the teacher's ability to give the right problem at the right time and give the right amount of support.

  2. Loved this post! Thank you for sharing it! I hope we find someone who change Emmett's mind and he will want to work for the good side.

    We don't know what we want to do when we are 13, 14, 15, unless we are top athlete or musician and even then, you's takes your chances. That is why we study EVERYTHING. MG loved music and dance and singing. His parents made him take AP Calc and Physics...he got into REED, then he got to ACT for his MFA, now he is making it in NYC as a character actor, on Broadway, and voice overs. That is why you study a bit everything.

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