In my early years of teaching Maths, I was regularly asked the question “When are we going to use this?” In my first year of teaching, I was eager to answer every one of these queries – I quickly discovered that most of these questions were not asked to find out the answer, but rather to try and stump me as the teacher. Despite this, there are times when students genuinely want an answer. Here are some thoughts in answering this common question. There are several possible responses depending on the type of question that I will investigate over the next few posts.
1. Why is this question asked of Maths more than other subjects?
I have to ask why this question is asked of Mathematics more than any other subject. Students do not regularly ask in English, History or Science when we are going to use. It is taken that this information is beneficial in and of itself. A History teacher argues that if you don’t know the past then you can’t learn from it as a society, but on an individual level this argument has little weight.
2. This maths is needed for Further Mathematics
There is a difference between subjects studied in High School as at University. Some University/TAFE courses are vocationally based and are practical in their approach (Mechanics, Plumbing, even Law to an extent) but many others (Arts, Science, etc) are broad and do not link to a particular career.
With some of the work being more abstract, Maths does lend itself to this question being asked more than in other subjects.
This is a cop-out answer, although very true in many circumstances. Students like to know the use of Algebra, and with much of the beginnings of Algebra the truthful answer is that it is useful for further Mathematics.
We do ask word questions, “I bought two pencils and have $5 remaining. If I had $25 to start with how much does each pencil cost?” (2x + 5 = 25). Despite the absurdity of some of these questions (not being realistic at all – each pencil costing $10) they are not how anyone would realistically complete this question! Everyone would just think ‘take off 5′ and then ‘halve’.
Students are left unsatisfied with this response, but teachers can give this answer if they have developed a level of trust with the students.
3. Answer using a Career
Many parts of Mathematics are useful for particular careers. Often though, they are useful for quite a narrow career field or the maths required is not much past Year 7 or 8 Mathematics. There are some good examples on many careers websites.
However, telling a class that a Zoo Keeper uses ratios probably won’t satisft many students as they will not necessarily want to be a Zoo Keeper.
http://www.mathscareers.org.au/ (by AMSI) is an excellent website that details how mathematics is used in a number of careers, including:
- Traffic Engineer
- Sports Statistician
- Guitar Marker
- Store Manager
- Travel Agent
- Motor Mechanic
- Personal Trainer
- Zoo Keeper
- Financial Analyst
4. A Satisfactory Answer – It teaches you to think!
I started this series by posing the question “Why is this question asked more of Mathematics?”
I believe that every subject in High School is beneficial because they teach students how to learn, think, understand in different ways. The research techniques learnt in history, the report writing of Business Studies and the problem solving logical approach of Mathematics are all important to develop a well rounded student.
This being said, we must ensure that our teaching approach does promote problem solving, mathematical thinking and logical clear reasoning. The Working Mathematically strand of the current NSW Syllabus and the Australian Curriculum Syllabus in New South Wales strongly support this emphasis in our teaching.
In other words:
Maths teaches you to think!