It’s the chorus of bored or frustrated students everywhere: why do I have to learn this? When will I ever use it? Especially with math, it’s a common complaint, because students might feel like learning a particular formula or geometric principles isn’t going to be applicable in later life.
There are a few easy answers to this question. First, there are tons of jobs that do rely heavily on math skills! Especially as the medical field, technology, and construction continue to grow, more and more of the career paths of the future (especially the stable, lucrative ones) will require fluency in math.
Consider a research scientist, who might need to work with huge data sets, or design formulas that help to expand a research project. Consider a software developer, whose code needs to be perfect in order to make a program run correctly. Consider an architect or construction project manager, who both need to be able to build models to scale and calculate materials needed. Your mom might want you to be a doctor—who would need math to measure medications for an individual patient, or track patient results over time—but the truth is, many more careers use math every day. The more fluent you are in mathematical skills, the more prepared you’ll be to do well in these and many other fields.
Another easy answer to this question is that we all use math in everyday life—you just might not view it like that! Every time you budget or make a savings plan, calculate monthly payments on a big purchase or interest rates for a credit card, adjust a recipe or sewing pattern, and even figure out the most efficient path to mow your lawn—that’s all math!
In fact, think of the most recent time you did multiplication.
Trying to come up with this example in your own daily life might be challenging—but not because you’re not using multiplication! We all use this basic math skill throughout our daily lives. The trick is, because we are so used to doing multiplication, we just don’t notice it much any more. There are lots of math skills at use in your life and all around you that, because you’ve practiced them and they are familiar and easy, you’ve stopped paying attention to how you had to develop that skill in the first place.
We practice math in school so that real-life activities like these become easier, because our minds are familiar with the formulas and relationships that make these tasks work. Completing lesson plans and homework throughout in all subjects is what prepares us to be effective in our adult lives, productive in the careers we choose, and able to achieve the best of our potential. You might never read Charles Dickens again after high school, and, I hate to admit it, you might never need to know the relationships of the angles in an isosceles triangle after high school—but these are the skills that prepare your brain for real world problems. These skills make you a critical thinker who can tackle any project, regardless of where you end up in the world!
However, the larger answer to a student who is bored or frustrated with math isn’t to try to convince them that their job prospects or ability to file their taxes in the future depends on completing their homework today. Students who feel that their lessons aren’t applicable or useful are expressing a valid frustration. It’s worth taking a look at the lesson plans, the textbook, and the tests that are being used to determine if they’re the right tools for teaching this subject.
Check out my recent blog, What to Do When You’ve Hit a Wall, for more tips on how to maneuver obstacles with strategies and resources.
Students might be expressing a larger frustration. Does your student truly understand the course material, or the material that came before it?
Math is like building a house: we have to make sure that the foundation is solid before we can build the frame, and once the frame is solid we can start to construct each room.When students feel frustrated with a new concept or while starting a new chapter in the textbook, it might be a sign that they don’t feel comfortable with the foundational concepts for the new work.
Math is all around us, and each of us needs to be able to use it effectively in our daily lives. Students who feel frustrated might have valid concerns, but might also need to envision their future selves. Having a sense of building toward a future career, owning a future business, or even developing a future app can give a student reason to succeed. And if all else fails, remind your student that they’ll need to understand math in order to pass their math tests!