Why learn math?

At Exponential Curve, discussion is raging on how to persuade students who enter high school with fifth-grade math skills that it’s worth their while to learn math.

One of the main components that my Numeracy class is still lacking is the piece that will help motivate students to want to learn math, and to understand why improving their math skills is so critical. I’m not talking about learning math so they can find discounts at the store or give the correct tip at a restaurant – or even so that they can pass Algebra. Though these things are important too, I’m talking about math in the larger social context.

Dan Greene, who teaches at Downtown College Prep, the school in my book, is looking for advice from teachers on how to connect learning math to students’ goals and aspirations.

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  1. It is really the parents’ responsibility and not the school’s to stimulate the sustained, high level, and largely unrewarding effort that is necessary to master mathematics. A child must take it on faith from an adult he trusts that all this work has a point. A teacher can only fulfill this role in exceptional cases. The effort to build “real world” problems into math instruction is largely phony.

    Mathematics is very much an acquired taste and the majority of people who acquire a high level of competance in math, never really take much pleasure in math for its own sake.

  2. ElizabethBennet says:

    I never liked math as a student. Then I got to college and saw its applications in understanding natural phenomena (astrophysics and geophysics) and I finally understood why I needed to know how to derive formulas. Now I find math enjoyable, because it helps me describe things like earthquakes.

    My advice to teachers is to try to connect math to the scientific disciplines where it’s needed. Don’t just teach it as facts unconnected to any possible application. The application doesn’t have to be as simple as “how to balance a checkbook”, but it should be relevant to other fields of study. Bonus points if it can be demonstrated with multimedia simulations, like earthquakes can.

  3. Wayne Martin says:

    > A child must take it on faith from an adult
    > he trusts that all this work has a point.

    Math is at the core of many aspects of our industrialized world. Throw in data modeling and statistics, and there is little that we do that can not be simulated via some sort of mathematics and computerized for better understanding of the “system”.

    Teachers who understand this can provide better/real world examples that “trust me”. It would seem that the point about teachers developing “core competency” skills reasserts itself here. It’s really a shame that people in industry aren’t allowed to teach in their local schools, providing other avenues of knowledge to enter the classroom.

  4. Odds are most of these people ar guys, right?

    Get in construction workers, mechanics, and electronic jockeys to explain how they all use math to figure stuff out – the first time.

    In order to avoid having to do it again a second time.

  5. georgelarson says:

    You cannot understand money or how to creat wealth without math. I agree it is not high level math, but too mnay people do not understand the terms of their loans and the costs of their investments. Without math they are at the mercy of slick sales people.

  6. I had a college math prof who was asked by a student, “But, professor, how do you actually *use* this stuff?”

    The prof came right back: “You use it to make the atomic bomb.”

    Student: “*How* do you use it to make the atomic bomb?”

    Prof: “That’s classified!”

  7. In middle school, I had a math teacher who insisted that we could all double our money without lifting a finger. That got our attention. She then went on to teach us about interest.

    My suggestion is to find some application for each concept that will get students curious and thinking about it, much in the same way that a good movie trailer does for a good movie. Then teach the concept in abstract, including attendant details, and then bring the thing you teased about back in.

  8. If you try to learn a new software program for the sake of learning the program, you can study it forever but you won’t get much out of the effort. If you need to accomplish something specific though, and you grab this new program because you know it’s capable of getting you there, you figure it out.

    Keeping kids in school for twelve years, trying to make them learn things they might use for something someday, is maybe not the most effective motivational situation.