NBI #3 — In which a student learns the truth about math class

Around the middle of the last school year, I started to get a rash of “Why do we have to learn thisssss?” from my students. At first, I tried to answer the question honestly and in great detail, with many examples of how the topic at hand was useful IN THE REAL WORLD!

And then I started to think about why my students were asking that question. Why all of a sudden were they so interested in why we were doing anything in class? Why weren’t they content with simply doing whatever I told them to do, like good little robots? (I guess I should note here that I’m not actually in favor of creating little robots in math class….)

I even asked a few of my students. “Why are you asking that question? What are you really trying to find out?”

And it turns out that they didn’t really care about math in the real world. They were just bored. Or they wanted to get me off on a tangent, preferably one which would delay actual work for, like, an hour, give or take.

So now I almost always respond with a variation on one of the following:

  1. This is the real world. Even though you’re a teenager; even though this is school and not work; even though you don’t have any bills to pay. This is as real as the world gets. You’re going to use this math right now, in this classroom, which is your world and your responsibility.
  2. Almost certainly never. Most of the specific things you learn in any class in high school are useless on a day-to-day basis. And that’s true for most of things that most people know. Like, did you know that Wayne Gretzky had so many assists, that even if you never counted one of his goals, he would still be the NHL’s leading point scorer? While interesting, this fact is, generally speaking, useless. Should I forget it just because I don’t need it every day in the real world? I think not!
  3. You will use this information at least twice. Once in a week or so, on our next assessment. And again, at the end of the year, for the big scary End of Course examination. So get learning!

It’s not that I’m against students wanting to know why we’re learning things. I try to make sure that we have a clear idea of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. But sometimes, you just gotta be honest with someone.

Of course, sometimes a student asks that question because what they really mean is, “This is so awesome, what extensions and applications can you open my eyes to?” They don’t get the snark. Usually.

BONUS MATERIAL. I haven’t actually worked up the courage to do this to anyone yet, but whenever I hear someone admit that they’re bad at math, I just want to scold them. When’s the last time you heard someone admit to being illiterate? And proudly, no less? “Oh, look at me, I can’t even read!” Yet as a society we allow people to say that about math. And it makes me sad.