A Phrase I Try To Avoid, Ctd.


I have found that when I pose an interesting, accessible problem, abstract or concrete, the students get completely absorbed and forget themselves, and never ask “when will I use this.”

When students ask that question, nine times out of ten they aren’t really asking that question.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. Well, Dan (and everyone else), what are students “really” asking when they ask, “when am I ever going to use this?”

  2. What they usually are asking is… Why do I have to do this? Why is this difficult? Why do you want me to think about this?

  3. [first comment – quite nerve wracking]

    I find that some pupils will ask “Why am I doing this?” as a way to make me go off on a tangent. I feel some pupils do ask with a genuine interested in where or who would use a piece of mathematics. Sometimes it can be hard to give a concrete answer, and telling them it’s a skill just to pass a test so they can get into college or uni feels a little like I’m just bypassing thier question.

    For the most part I think Tom and Jon have this right though. Rather than a pupil saying they don’t fully understand a topic they just throw out “Why am I doing this?” when really they mean “What’s the point?!”

  4. “I’m bored”

    “I don’t trust you”

    “My gut and faith are good enough to get me through life”

    “I haven’t needed [this material] yet”

    “My parents can’t do my homework, so I guess this isn’t important as an adult”

  5. Mike hit the nail on the head with the parents comment. sometimes I really feel like I am torturing my students, on the other hand, when I think about adults who walk around and can’t solve anything with an “x” in it, I really get sad…

  6. Grrr. I had a couple paragraphs that just disappeared on me.

    Some thoughts:

    For me the phrase means there hasn’t been enough focus on the thought process over content. The creativity of problem constructing and solving is lost from the early grades when math is compartmentalized and taught as straight up computation.

    Curricula do indeed need more focus on narrative and creativity as well as logic. Teacher education programs don’t seem to be doing much to address this. Too much implication and not enough explication of the situation.

    When was the last time an English teacher heard “When are we ever gonna read this?” or a phy ed teacher heard “When am I ever gonna do chinups”

    The politicians who insist on testing (the mathematical structure) as they do should all have to take the test themselves. We can then publish the results and fund them accordingly…


  7. I very much agree with the comment that if students are naturally engaged in material (for whatever reason), the question of why is this relevant? or what am I ever gonna use this for? is much less likely to come up.

    Middle and high school students are at a developmental stage where they have begun to question the “infallibility” of the adults around them and the idea that they should learn something just because an adult said so.

    When something does not seem “worth their time” because they are not naturally engaged by it, they at least want some justification for why they should be learning it. The key (and the immense difficulty) I think to great teaching is minimizing the amount of times in a day that a student feels they need to ask that question. In other words, create a classroom culture where learning for the sake of learning can occur and students experience “flow”.

  8. I propose that questions like the one mentioned in Dan’s OP aren’t even really questions at all, they’re just masked ways of saying “you presented this material poorly.” To be clear, as disillusioned as they make you, they always deserve the best presentation of the material you can give them.

    I think about how many times in past teaching experiences where I’ve tried to honestly answer the question “when are we ever gonna use this,” only to later realize that the students didn’t actually want my answer. Usually students do this when I present the material like “here’s the tool, now here’s how we use it” (I did this with determinants in Algebra 2 last semester).

    Dan’s got a pretty genius way of putting the motivation (real or abstract) before the solution whenever possible, a method I’m trying to follow, or failing that, totally steal.

    My school used a textbook company who, in what was probably a well-intended move, put with the enrichment materials for almost every section worksheets titled “Real World Applications: When Will I Ever Use This?”

  9. Pwolf,

    I completely disagree that it is a way of stating that the material has been presented poorly. You could present the material perfectly, but students may still not be able to see the value of it. I agree more with the fact that has been hinted at in previous posts that this question is a defense mechanism.

  10. I also agree that the question is usually a defense mechanism….a smoke screen to take the focus off of their frustration or boredom. I recently had a discussion with one of my University classes about this question, and many of my students debated whether they thought this question was unique to the mathematics classroom, and if so, what it is about mathematics that leads to this question more than science, history, english, etc….. Thoughts???

  11. I would say if the student sees so little value in what’s being taught so they feel the need to tell you so (which is what I’m talking about), there’s got to be some tweaking that can be done somewhere in how the lesson is being presented, no matter how perfectly you think you’ve done it.

  12. Pwolf: As I reflect on my year and areas where I fell short, I’ve realized that its not on the lesson level that I fail to engage my students, but rather I failed to establish the proper culture. When a student asks me this I am realizing I need to look back to the unit/quarter/year timeframe.

  13. I roll my eyes when I see a lot of the “when will I use this” that appear in textbooks. Really, I’m learning exponents as a high school student so that if I ever become an astronomer I can more easily calculate the relative brightness of stars? Does -anyone- believe that?

    If I’m learning math so I can perform a specific task at some future date — next year’s class, some specific career — then yeah, why AM I doing this?

  14. When was the last time you heard of an elementary school student, particularly a lower grade one, ask about something in mathematics, “When will I use this?” or something of the kind?

    I’ve got a blog post coming out shortly that uses that question as a jumping-off point, exploring the broader question: What happens between lower elementary grades and the rest of school mathematics (emphasis on “school”) that leads them to ask of a particular piece of mathematical content, “When will I need to use this in the real world?”

  15. Michael,

    You make a great point, one my wife and I have discussed many times. It’s not only math. Many students in various high school subjects struggle to find ways to relate what they are learning to anything they may be doing later in life.

    I’m 35. Much of the content I learned in high school is in no way applicable to my daily life. Is there any reason for us to think that much of what we teach in high school now is going to be applicable to the lives of our students when they’re 35?

    The elementary grades, however, are (in my opinion) a time when kids are a) curious, and b) more apt to feel pride at having learned something, anything. I don’t think it crosses their mind to ask, “When will I need to know this?” They don’t care about that, they’re just happy to know it. The high school grades are a time when kids are a) developing independence, and along with it interests, b) going through puberty, and c) dealing with the distractions that causes. Their minds are elsewhere. WAY elsewhere.

    Where we as educators struggle is in underestimating them. Although much of the content I learned in high school was irrelevant, I was still a very curious, very “intriguable” kid. I had opinions and passions and it felt at times that school was depressing those. I’d imagine that many of our students would agree that it’s the same for them today. While we can’t cater every lesson to something that interests them, why can’t we ask them more what they are interested in and allow them to learn more about that?

  16. Kate MacInnis

    April 27, 2011 - 3:41 pm -

    I think that context and purpose often get inappropriately conflated. (Particularly by people that don’t spend time inside a math classroom.)

    Why do we make students read Macbeth? Why do we make them study the Civil War? These questions aren’t any different than why we make them learn algebra.

    You could try to tell me that we do these things so that everyone can catch the literary allusions in Buffy or Family Guy, but that’s as hollow as saying we teach algebra so that they can calculate how long it takes bean counters to count beans. An answer that is closer to the truth is that we have cultural expectations of what an educated person should know.

    I teach at the university level. And every semester that I teach a freshman-level course (which is most semesters), I have a conversation about why we learn this stuff if we’re never going to explicitly use it in “real-life”. (I will freely admit that I’ve likely got a much easier time of it with this conversation than anyone in K12 whose students are legally compelled to be there.) I usually let it come up semi-naturally (and it usually does), but I make sure that it comes up.

    Context can be a great hook and a tool to get students engaged in a lesson. But it’s not the *why* of what we do.

  17. Just to be contrary, I should point out this question “where am I going to use this” is not *always* a defense mechanism.

    In my Algebra II class once I had this complain pop up when I was teaching logarithms. I asked one of the students point blank what they wanted to do.


    “Ok, next time I will show you where in psychology you might want logarithms.”

    I came up with an in-class experiment using Stevens’ Power Law. Working out the exponent a requires a logarithm.

    Back to original student: “I’m so excited. This is what I get to be doing!”

  18. I think we taught students to ask “when.” I don’t recall ever asking. We started making excuses for teaching things. The truth is, we don’t know what they will need to know 10, 20, 30 years from now, all we can do is offer to prepare people with skills they might need, or could be used against them.
    Supplying one student the context s/he wants is great today, what about the other 299? and what if you gear all of this student’s learning to psychology and then then they find out about how much they love art restoration?
    When I went to school, I did not learn to type because it was offered as “something for girls to fall back on.” Who knew computers and keyboards were in my future, bigtime, a mere 3 years away.
    I am totally not going to do the thumbs texting.

  19. @louise – I appreciate the perspective that we educators don’t know what our students’ future will require of them and education is about giving them the best preparation and therefore choices.

    So, instead of answering “when will I use this” should we instead be answering, “what can happen if you don’t learn this?” Or, “how will your choices lessen if you don’t learn this?”

    Not that our future would exactly emulate this, but in the most recent Star Trek movie, every Cadet learned Calculus at or before high school because much of the operations, programming, and other duties required a high level of technical and mathematical understanding in order to function in their society, particularly on their ship.

    Our society is becoming more technological and the need to know math is ever increasing as more careers open up into the technological realm. If our students don’t understand abstract or higher level math, what will their choices in employment be? Even our cars are requiring more knowledge of technology and mathematics where auto mechanic used to be a career that someone who struggles with Algebra or high school math could fall back on. What would such students do in the future?

  20. @Michael – I have a collection of books from the certification programs, MCAT, LSAT,etc. so “I want to be a plumber/car mechanic/welder” or “I’m going to get my GED” or “I’m going to be a doctor” gets answered with a look at what the math is that you will have to know to complete any of those programs, a discussion of prerequisites and how certifications and colleges work, and then looking for what you might want to do that does not require any math (not much) in the program.
    Actually the math in a lot of these programs is being used as a “gatekeeper,” but you can’t argue with the state…
    And we all use computers but few of us know how to program them or fix them. So maybe kids will not need the skills we presume. The jobs aren’t going to Vietnam, China and India because the population is more educated, it’s because the workforce is cheaper.