# why do we learn math that we will never use

Why Do We Have to Study Math in School? Date: 02/25/2005 at 00:59:21

From: Ian

Subject: Why do we learn advanced math in school? What I find difficult in school is to understand the concept of

learning advanced math. I'm a freshman in high school and I'm in an

advanced math class. My teacher said to write to Dr. Math if I had

questions about Math, and well, I do. When I grow up, the job I want

to do will have nothing to do with radicals, algebra, imaginary

numbers, and all this other complicated stuff. I understand why we learn basic math, but why all this extra stuff? My

job will never require any of that. Yes, you might say, Well you'll

need it later in life, but I always have a calculator for that. In

fact if you go to your local supermarket, they use a cash register

with a built in calculator. Besides occurrences with money (and I'm

sure I'm not going to have questions dealing with radicals), why are

we taught this stuff? Date: 02/25/2005 at 08:32:06

From: Doctor Ian

Subject: Re: Why do we learn advanced math in school? Hi Ian,

Okay. First, there's an important distinction to be made between what

you need to know, and what can be useful to know. Here's a discussion

I had with someone about that, which you might find interesting:

Math is Power? http://mathforum. org/library/drmath/view/62716. html

Second, I'll tell you a secret: The reason you're being forced to

study math has nothing to do with whether you'll _use_ it or not. You

probably won't. Hardly anyone does. What you're actually supposed to be learning in math class is the art

of problem reduction, i. e. , starting with a problem, reducing it to a

simpler problem, reducing _that_ to a simpler problem, and so on,

until you end up with a problem that's trivial to solve. Unfortunately for you (and a lot of other students), many math

teachers don't understand this, or at least don't emphasize it as much

as they should. What makes math such a nice laboratory for problem reduction is that

it's possible to very precisely control the complexity of the problems

that are assigned. Any real world problem has so many complications

that it's easy to lose track of the forest for paying too much

attention to the trees. But in math, if we can get you to the point

where you can solve an equation like

3x + 4 = 5

then it's just one step to being able to solve an equation like

3x + 4 = 5 - 2x

and just another step to being able to solve an equation like

3x 4 2x

-- + - = 2 + --

7 5 9

and so on, and so on. And this continues on up through calculus, and

analysis, and, well, everywhere that mathematics goes. At each level of complexity, what you're _supposed_ to be doing is

developing the habit of looking at the problem in front of you, and

thinking: Forget about the solution for now. What can I do to turn

this into an easier problem? If you can master that skill, then once you're done, you can forget

about all the specific mathematics.

Remember when you were a toddler, developing hand-eye coordination and

a basic understanding of balance by building towers of blocks? When

was the last time you stacked up a bunch of blocks? Years and years

ago. When do you expect to do it again? Probably never. Does that

mean the time you spent learning to do it was wasted? Not at all. You kept the basic skills--which had nothing at all to do with blocks,

per se--and left the toys behind. Same thing here. - Doctor Ian, The Math Forum

http://mathforum. org/dr. math/

Date: 02/25/2005 at 19:10:10 From: Ian Subject: Why do we learn advanced math in school? Thank you very much. This basically answers my question. I'm going to print this out and show it to my teacher, maybe we'll get less homework or something. ;-) -Ian "When are we going to ever use this stuff? " is a protesting lament heard by most teachers several times a year. It comes from students with little patience to put up with ideas or concepts too abstract or irrelevant for them to fathom. Many more students share this thinking but have sufficient impulse control to keep their lips from expressing the same thought. Now more than ever, with Common Core emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving in an ever-changing world of information and technology, there are even many educators who struggle to identify content that is important and relevant. Unless students are blessed with an exceptional memory, most of the stuff we teach won't be remembered or used beyond the final exam. I no longer know any of the theorems I learned in 11th grade math, would be hard pressed to identify the elements in the periodic table, and struggle to recall the main theme of Charlotte's Web. Arguably, these are merely once-known facts that have been dulled by an aging memory and unconnected to what is really important to know: the acquisition, mastery and application of basic literacy skills. Yet even literacy can nowadays be called into question. If you can't read, you can listen to pre-recorded books. CanБt find your way? No problem, just plug in the desired address and your phone or GPS will get you there. Can't do basic math? Just whip out the trusty calculator. It may well be that the relevance of everything we teach can be questioned! Watching my seven-year-old twin grandchildren bowl recently, I was struck by how automated bowling alleys have become and how automation can get in the way of acquiring and using skills. When I was a kid, keeping a bowling score helped make math relevant. Nowadays, it is actually impossible to keep score on your own even if you desire, because a computer does it immediately after you throw the ball. When I tried to correct my grandson's belief that a spare was as good as a strike since all the pins were knocked down, he lost patience because the attempted explanation took longer than a few seconds.

The best solution to this problem is to make every lesson relevant to each student. However, given the impossibility of achieving that goal, I offer a few teaching tips that can mostly make that dreaded question about relevance a thing of the past. "This Might Not Make Sense Yet, But. " Tell your students that not everything you teach will always make sense. Let them know that you will always do your best to explain when they might use what you are teaching them, but that you might not always know. For example: "Not everything I teach will always make sense to you right away. I'll do my best to explain, and IБll even try to help you see how you might actually need or use what we're learning. But sometimes youБll just have to trust that what I'm teaching is important to learn for now -- even if it seems confusing, silly or unnecessary. " Upon hearing the "When will I ever use this? " refrain, a high school teacher I work with tells her students, "I'm not sure because I don't know what you want to be in your life. But if you give me a list of everything you plan to do and accomplish, I'll do my best to let you know when we cover something that I think you might use. " When kids say, "I don't know what I'm going to do,Б her response is, "Exactly. You might need it next week, next year or never. But it is going to be on Friday's test, not because I want to make you miserable, but because at the end of the year, it is going to be on the state test, and if you want to pass, you need to know it. Б Another response sprinkled with humor that I heard from a teacher: "You need to learn this because some day when you have a child who asks you for help and you can't help because you don't know it, you wonБt feel stupid. Б At one of my seminars on motivating unmotivated students, an algebra teacher gave me a paper he gives to all of his students on their first day in his class. He calls it "Algebra Attitude Adjustment. " It begins: "So, you are stuck taking this class and having to learn stuff that you most likely will never need. Why do you even have to take this class? I mean, it is all so unfair. " After continuing in that vein for a bit, he writes, "Remember that you want to be successful. A successful person would figure out a way to use a class like this to his or her advantage. A successful person would want to take this seemingly bad situation and twist it around. A successful person would take lemons, make lemonade and sell it! It's not about the math! You're not just in a math class! THIS IS A CLASS IN SUCCESS TRAINING! " My apology to this algebra teacher for not giving his "Algebra Attitude Adjustment" proper credit. I know you gave me permission to share this, but I don't have your name. Please share a comment below with your name if you wish. Thanks.

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