Friday, October 30, 2015

Why do I have to study math?

     “Why do I have to study math? I’ll never use it.”
      I’m sure every math teacher has heard this question. It’s not easy to answer. I have heard several possible answers, but I’m not completely satisfied with any of them. I have a somewhat different reply, which I learned from - of all people - an English teacher.
      One possible answer is how important math is in the real world. Each of us has our favorite real world problems that illustrate the importance of math. But these problems seem contrived, and are not the problems ordinary people encounter. The book When Are We Ever Gonna Have to Use This contains math examples from nearly 100 occupations, but most of these merely use arithmetic or pre-algebra.
      Another possible answer is that many occupations require math, and a student limits his future options by avoiding math. My reply is that most students are not going to choose such occupations.       A third possible answer is that math helps us to think logically. But many people who are quite logical thinkers and good problem solvers know minimal math. If the purpose is to teach logical thinking, maybe we should teach logic.
      Here is my reply, which I discovered during a team project in an education course. I was teamed with an English teacher, and we were trying to find some common ground between us. To my surprise, she explained that when she analyzes a poem, she searches for various patterns in the poem.
      Searching for patterns? As the math person, I thought I had exclusive rights on searching for patterns. But then I came to an epiphany: We’re all searching for patterns. The toddler who tries to learn which behaviors will elicit attention. The physician who tries to investigate the cause of an illness (think of the TV show “House”), who is similar to the police detective who tries to solve a series of crimes. The art critic and the movie critic. (I once heard a movie critic explain that when the major character travels across a bridge, there is about to be a personality change.) The plumber who searches for the leak. I’m sure you can think of many others.
      We are all searching for patterns in life, and we do this with our own unique lens on we how we view the world. As math people we look for quantitative patterns. It seems to me that the more tools we have to discover patterns, the richer our lives are. I think students should study math to give them one more tool in their toolbox to discover life’s patterns.

Saunders, H. 1988. When Are We Ever Gonna Have to Use This. White Plains, NY: Dale Seymour Publications.