Monday, August 5, 2013

"When Am I Ever Going to Use This?" ...Sometimes I Don't Know the Answer

For some reason, the question of "when am I ever going to use this in real life?" seems to pop up at a disproportionately higher rate in math class than in any other subject. I'm willing to bet that's the case.

Do I have any scholarly research or statistics to back up this claim? No.

But I did go to Google and type in the phrase, "when am I ever," to see what popped up:

See? Algebra and Calculus! Obvious proof that this question is asked more in math class than in any other class! And if you aren't convinced by this, then... uh... um... well, then you probably think critically about your info sources and have good judgment.

At any rate, the new school year is around the corner. I've enjoyed the time away from the classroom and have spent many hours mapping curriculum, trying to keep up with the happenings in the MTBoS and preparing some new tasks to try out this year.

As I was reflecting on my first four years of teaching and looking ahead to year five, I kept thinking about what I'm going to do when, inevitably, the question is asked:

"When am I ever going to use this kind of math in real life?"

This question nearly always evokes some kind of emotional reaction from me. One of two types, in fact:

(1) UNADULTERATED, ABSOLUTE JOY, because I have an answer to the question that is totally satisfactory, underscores the relevance of the current mathematical topic, lets me talk about math (which is super-cool because I love talking about math) and helps the kid to see just how motherfreaking awesome math is,


(2) MURDEROUS RAGE that someone, who's half my age, who hasn't even learned as much math as I've forgotten, would have the impudence to ask me that question. Not just to ask me that question, but to ask me that question when I have no idea whatsoever how to answer in a way that isn't complete bullcrap.

Okay, I don't actually get mad at students for asking me that question. Or any question. Not ever. I like having curious students. And a job.

I do try my best to be prepared to answer the question of "when am I going to use this?" for any mathematical topic that comes up in my classroom. But sometimes I do feel annoyed when I don't really have a good answer. Not annoyed at the student (not much, anyway), but more at myself for not being prepared with a brilliant, insightful response. After all, I'm the math teacher, right? I should know, in great detail, when the hell someone would ever use an inverse tangent function when they get out into the real world. I should be able to spell out the exact situation in which one would need to know everything there is to know about the latus rectum. (Tee-hee.)

But I don't always know the answer. When that happens -- depending on my mood/how busy I am/what's happening in class/how many cups of coffee I've consumed in the past five minutes -- I tend to go with one of the following responses (I don't recommend using any of these):
  • "That's a great question." *flees without saying another word*
  • "I can't tell you that; it would ruin the surprise!"
  • "'Real life?' Math is real life, son."
  • "You know, I find that the best answers in life are the ones we find for ourselves."
  • "What're you talking about? I use it all the time!" ("But you're a math teacher," the student replies. "Yep, that's why I use it all the time!" I reply back.)
  • "Uh, come see me after class and I'll be happy to talk to you more about your question." (Nobody has ever taken me up on this.)

I feel terrible when I don't have an answer for that question right away. There are times when it seems like it would be easiest just to say, "you know, there's a pretty good chance that you're not actually going to use this; but hey, gotta know it to pass, right?"

I mean, I've actually uttered those words to a student once or twice. I'm not proud of it. At the time, I felt like I was just being straight with the kid(s) who asked. I guess I figured that kids appreciate honesty and have a pretty good nose for B.S. But when I think about it, I realize that what I really did was cheat those students out of a great learning opportunity. I cheated myself as well.

I'm a math teacher, yes, but I'm also a math learner. A lifelong math learner. I shouldn't be ashamed or annoyed when I don't know exactly where or when stuff like hyperbolas or the mean value theorem are used in real life. Instead, I should be seeing an opportunity to learn something new. I should be excited that I've discovered something new to learn about a topic I absolutely love. I should be, like, absolutely jacked that there's stuff about math that I don't know but can find out about for myself. I mean, that's what I'd want my students to do, right?

So this year, I'm going to start using this response (or something similar, still a work in progress):
  • "You know what? I'm not quite sure. I know there's a use for [insert mathematical concept here], but I'm still trying to figure that out. I'll try to do some research on it after class. Maybe you could also look it up, and let me know what you find. That would be really helpful."

I'm a math teacher; I shouldn't be shrinking away from that question when a student comes asking. I should be full-on body tackling that thing like it's a quarterback's blind side.

I do think we math teachers try to know where the stuff we teach can be used in the world beyond school; but we won't always know. When we don't know, we need to find out. We need to include our students in the process of finding out, because they asked the question in the first place.

We can't always know, but we can always care. We can always care enough to try and find out. We can always care enough to try and do better.

So this year, I'll try and do better.


  1. Try this:

  2. Hi.
    Not all maths is done for a real life reason (that's the area called pure maths) and there's plenty of value in doing maths for its own sake.
    I think you're right that people don't ask "When am I ever going to use these art skills in real life" because they see that it's not meant to be useful on a daily basis.
    I often say that studying maths shows you have a certain ability to think logically, systematically etc and using abstract maths concepts gives you that chance.

    On the other hand, when the opportunity arises, I'm happy to say "I can show you why someone might want to do this. Maybe not you personally but someone."

    We have to accept that an awful lots of the maths that is taught is not useful on a daily basis.

  3. Maybe we should send those questions "out there" - to social media.

    Question: Who has ever thought about inverse tangents after pre-calculus?

    Answer: In my job building flux capacitors, I use inverse trig functions on a a daily basis. We could have a wicked work web, an awesome mapping diagram showing who uses what for each skill. In fact, we could even put it into our curriculum maps! (No, delete that before some administrator gets hold of the idea.)

    Frankly, when is a student ever going to read a haiku or conjugate French verbs or know what mitochondria is? Some might not, some might, but we can't project far enough into the future to answer the question for them right now, so we give them a basis for their lives, whatever they may turn out to be.

  4. I would always tell my students something like this:

    "There is no way to predict when YOU would use this in real life. I don't know what you are going to do with your life yet, and neither do you. I'm twice your age, and I don't know all the things I'm going to do with my life yet! I think that's the wrong kind of question to ask. Asking that question assumes the purpose of all this learning you are doing is to retain this knowledge for future use; guess what, that's not the purpose. Since neither one of us or your mom have any idea what talents will need to be extracted from your brain for the rest of your life, the best we can do to prepare you is give you practice learning all kinds of complicated things, so that when its time to put your brain to work, whether you're a painter, an engineer, a politician, a medical researcher, a scuba instructor, or a scuba instructor turned engineer (which does happen), you're brain is big and powerful enough to be able to learn what you need to learn to be successful.

    You might never use this in real life, but I guarantee you'll use the neural networks you built in your brain while you were learning it. You'll use those everyday of your life. The benefit of any knowledge you'll keep is just icing on the cake. And you'd be surprised how much inverse trig functions come up at cocktail parties."