When Will I Ever Use This?

Click through to read John Mason response to the age-old question.

I have used this response, or ones like it, for many years with teachers when studying mathematics courses at the Open University, and I have noticed that it is only when I feel I am lost, when I lose confidence, when I feel as though I have reached my limits, that I find myself asking “why am I doing this?”

Co-signed.

They don’t actually want to know. They’re tired of feeling stupid and small.

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Mr. C:

Why do we need to know this? 2 words: Robot Apocalypse!

Who will reprogram the machines? Whose calculations would you trust your life with? I was sent her from the future… to be your math teacher!

Matt E:

I still love Sam Otten’s exploration of this family of questions:

https://www.msu.edu/~ottensam/Otten_2011MT_reprint.pdf

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18 Comments

  1. @markchubb3

    February 7, 2016 - 3:52 pm
    Reply

    “When will we ever need this?”

    This question isn’t about wanting to know about our future… It’s a complaint about the present.

    When students are disengaged, they are likely to start to wonder about why they are even there.

    I think a point we need to think more about is the word “engagement”. To some it is about making things practical… Other it means making things fun… Others it is about making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to do… Still others see engagement to do more with students actively involved in the process of learning.

    I wonder if our view of engagement has to do with our response to the students’ initial question?

  2. Joshua

    February 7, 2016 - 8:17 pm
    Reply

    I get that this is about primary and secondary kids, but there is a version for serious mathematicians that might shed an interesting light: why do we need to operate at this level of abstraction?

    This question, in turn means: how does this abstraction relate to constructs we already understand and how does this abstraction relate to questions we want to answer?

    Two examples I know are (1) the work of Grothendieck in SGA/EGA where (I’m told) he made a tremendous effort to operate at the highest available level of abstraction and (2) Mochizuki’s work on the ABC conjecture. In the case of (2), there are nice notes from Brian Conrad that open the curtain a bit more on this version of the question: Oxford Workshop.

  3. Patrick Honner

    February 8, 2016 - 4:58 am
    Reply

    Regardless of what we think such student questions mean, the insincere and dismissive response uniformly employed by John Mason is only going to make students feel smaller and stupider.

  4. Chett Garcia

    February 8, 2016 - 5:17 am
    Reply

    I like to answer the question like this:

    “Can I sit here and honestly tell you that you’ll need to convert logarithms(or whatever subject) in your every day life come 10 years from now, no. But I can tell you that a huge part of school is learning to explore and learn material that is challenging. The ability to persevere through something difficult and the ability to make sense of the world around us. Math can do that for your brain in a way not much else out there can. So What can I do to help you now?”

    Then I take a mental note that I may need to rework my approach to try to make things more interesting and find ways to build natural curiosity into that lesson for the next chance. That is what I keep researching and working on as I reflect on my craft of teaching.

  5. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    February 8, 2016 - 5:57 am
    Reply

    I have no problem with Mason’s reply, assuming that it’s probably not going to be given before he’s established some sort of rapport with students and given them a less “dangerous” opportunity to realize he has a sense of humor. And his reply clearly IS humorous and is followed by something different.

    That said, I wonder if chemistry or physics teachers ever get asked that question. I know that back in my literature-teaching days, I got it now and then, but not nearly as often as in math classes. And sometimes it’s a sincere question, not a frustrated or combative one. I try to attend very carefully to the tone of the questioner before crafting a response.

  6. Patrick Honner

    February 8, 2016 - 6:10 am
    Reply

    “I have a habit of immediately replying “because it is absolutely essential in the oil industry.” Then I watch their face fall.

    It doesn’t sound like the students are laughing, Michael.

  7. Mr. C.

    February 8, 2016 - 9:26 am
    Reply

    Why do we need to know this? 2 words: Robot Apocalypse!

    Who will reprogram the machines? Whose calculations would you trust your life with? I was sent her from the future… to be your math teacher!

  8. John Huhn

    February 8, 2016 - 11:59 am
    Reply

    My High Mathematics teacher told me something that I share with my students today “Math makes you stronger.” You lift weights to make your body stronger, you do algebra to make your mind stronger. When my students have a headache in my class “I say feel the burn.” It takes a strong mind to pass Algebra 2. It takes a strong mind to make it in the world. My classroom is a gym for your mind.

  9. Dan Meyer

    February 8, 2016 - 1:13 pm
    Reply

    Patrick:

    Regardless of what we think such student questions mean, the insincere and dismissive response uniformly employed by John Mason is only going to make students feel smaller and stupider.

    Okay. I get that you aren’t into the intro quip at all. But “what are you struggling with?” is kind of the opposite of insincere and dismissive.

    Chett and John have similar responses. Here’s Chett:

    It takes a strong mind to pass Algebra 2. It takes a strong mind to make it in the world. My classroom is a gym for your mind.

    Here’s John:

    The ability to persevere through something difficult and the ability to make sense of the world around us. Math can do that for your brain in a way not much else out there can.

    But I wonder if this response ever finds a ceiling. That is to say, a horrible teacher could ask her students to write the same equations 100 times, in the dark, using dull pencils, and if the students complained, both responses would still apply. “This is hard, but so is the world.” Mason’s response seems to put more of the burden on himself.

    Kudos to Matt E for the Otten citation (never not appropriate) and Mr. C for a superior response to Mason’s.

  10. Tom Webster

    February 9, 2016 - 8:32 am
    Reply

    As a basketball coach as well as a math teacher, I try and mesh the two wherever possible. When asked the eternal question, I say that I clearly would never ask my players to do a bicep curl or drop and do 10 push-ups in the middle of a game. However that training (and others) is essential to making them stronger, more fit players capable of doing bigger and better things.

    Math (especially those hard-to-support-with-“real-world applications”-techniques…I’m looking at YOU factoring cubics!!!…) can be viewed as mind-training, for some future competition of the mind. A workout that will both make the mind stronger, and open it up for further training in the future, even if today’s workout may be boring, or appear meaningless in the short-term.

  11. Jered

    February 9, 2016 - 10:20 am
    Reply

    I resonate with Chett’s response above. I readily admit we aren’t using logarithms, completing the square or memorizing the unit circle in most careers (outside of being a math teacher) while at the same time coaxing them into a way of thinking that only math can do. “It might not be your favorite, but it’s your job 50 minutes a day and I want to help you do it well.”

    Admittedly, this requires some rapport and trust. I’m honest with them (most of the specific tasks are useless, the mode of thinking is not). I relate things from my life (learning to fix a garage door, replace a radiator and build a fence) … things they wouldn’t expect a math teacher to do outside of class.

    My aim: if I can branch out and do something I’ve never done before, maybe they can, too.

  12. education realist

    February 10, 2016 - 6:11 pm
    Reply

    I gave my answer here in response to your “math as aspirin” post: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/math-isnt-aspirin-neither-is-teaching/

    My answer to the student demand: “Probably never. But the more willing you are to take on challenging tasks you learn from, the more opportunities you’ll have in life, both professional and personal. Call me crazy, but I see this as a good thing.”

    From my math class to a brutal Dolores Umbridge is a slippery slope, I guess, but I’m good with that.

    I think what math teachers often envision doing is converting the kids who would otherwise never use it into kids who would. That’s highly unlikely, though.

  13. Chester Draws

    February 10, 2016 - 8:51 pm
    Reply

    The last time a boy asked that, I asked back if he ever did skills drill at football. He did, of course.

    I then asked him, when was the last time his side ever did a drill on the field in a game. Never, of course.

    And so it is with Maths. We practice so we have skills. That practice is simplified so that we can work on only one thing at a time. If we don’t practice skills, we won’t play well even though we never use those actual practice drills in the game.

    It seemed to work.

  14. David Butler

    February 11, 2016 - 12:23 pm
    Reply

    I rarely use it with students, but this quote from the Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster at least inspires me:

    “What you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

  15. Sam Benigni

    February 14, 2016 - 3:51 pm
    Reply

    Mr. Mason’s response is a pity.

    Every once in a while, I open an open algebra or calc class with something like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74IsySs3RGU

    The question is now preempted with a new one:

    What can’t you do with skill in mathematical or scientific reasoning?

  16. Doug McKenzie

    February 15, 2016 - 6:01 pm
    Reply

    It seems some are reading Mason differently than I did. I felt he was apologizing for the curt reply, and looking to embrace a new one, that treated the question as a symptom of distress, which I think it is 90% of the time.

    I like this quote from the Otten article a lot: A different type of preemptive approach is one built around a learning environment in which the question “When am I ever going to use this?” is not raised because … the students are happily engaged in learning mathematics and unlikely to challenge its purpose (e.g., students are finding intrinsic value in mathematical discovery and sense making).

    It is so easy to forget that the symbols of math carry no inherent meaning, and therefore it is also easy to unintentionally be asking the students to “Think!” about something they can’t really think about. When students work with a visual pattern, or a bar model, or a set of balance pans, there is enough information there for them to see the relationships and reason with them. Math symbols are meant to represent mathematical thinking, and they can’t replace it.

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