Confronting My Own Irrelevance

Two things:

  1. The fact is that many successful people couldn’t pass a summative Algebra exam. I wouldn’t give my principal or my superintendent – both smart, successful people – good odds in a fight with a quadratic equation. So why do I teach this stuff?
  2. This question pounds at me a little harder with this year’s remedial Algebra group which, on an individual student average, has seen more hard time than I have in twice their years. I understand that passing Algebra and (by prerequisite) graduating high school increases one’s earning potential, etc., but what kind of sales pitch is that to a kid who’s raising himself and his sister and who is, at fourteen, a high-functioning alcoholic, who is, right now, feeling pretty proud of himself for just catching the metro line to school. How am I supposed to tell this kid to solve for x? Needless to say, when you’re dealing with a kid who very literally has nothing left to lose, you’ve also gotta rethink your usual set of motivators.
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Boy do I know this feeling. 3 years ago I was standing at the graveside of my 3rd student to die in one school year. I felt hollow as I watched his grandmother throw herself on the casket of a kid who was in my room everyday. Everyday I watched belief in some other life drain from him. He was truly struggling, his life had no abstract in it. I was asking him to grapple with ordered thought of an abstract idea, and he was just hungry. Hungry for some way to not be in the gang, hungry for a real connection, and hungry for hope. I questioned what I was doing. The students in my room knew I took it hard when his “friend” shot him. After, I saw kids in the class who now had a courage to fail, to try, to succeed. (This year those kids will graduate. I won’t be there. I took a job at another school due to husband.)

    I listen as older math teachers tell me how general math was the most required before 1990. I watch as parents, who we graduated here, struggle because the math their freshman is learning they’ve literally never seen. I read online how singapore students are tops in math and how they have high pressure classes and must attend tutoring every day just to keep up with math.
    Will algebra truly change the life of a child, a community, a country?
    Curious, how many “successful” non-math adults who took algebra could pass the test? Here is my states test sample. This is about average of the 52 questions asked.

  2. I’m just home from a PD opportunity at very small, very holistic K-12 private school in my state. One of the sessions was with a professor I took a philosophy of education class with a few years back. The graduate class was one of the best I’ve ever taken, so I signed up for his session hoping for a reminder of his philosophy. I wasn’t disappointed.

    In his talk today he focused on the need for having shared experiences. The having of the experience, he argues, is more important than the subject matter. When you start talking about a 14 year old alcoholic, the question isn’t just why teach him math. The question is why teach him anything? But as long as he has made it to school and is in your classroom, let him experience something good through whatever you have to teach. There’s good to be had in math, english, art. Why else would we bother?

    Because if there’s no reason to teach that kid math, then there’s also no reason to think he’ll ever get beyond the crap life he’s been dealt.

  3. This is the basis of the existential crisis I’ve been in for about the last 7 years. And with my set of remedial kids this year, for whom those old motivators don’t matter because of what you describe and/or they are far too logical to click with them, I feel stuck every fourth period… and it’s not too far a stretch to apply the same crushing situation to the other periods of the day. Why do I teach this stuff when lots of people are plenty [pick your adverb] without it? What’s the point of all this?

  4. Why do you yourself solve for x, Dan?

    What about quadratic equations knits up the rents in the world for you?

    What truth does it point to, embody, symbolize?

    Start there.

  5. I had an interesting conversation with my AP about my remedial algebra class. I was telling him that the only time most of my students were able to solve two step equations was when I gave prompts along the way (“What is happening to x?” , “how would get x all alone”, etc.) I thought this was not going to help them be successful especially when they needed to perform these tasks on standardized tests in their future.

    He wondered if we could call these successes anyway. This might be the first time they have gotten through a two step equation after trying unsuccessfully for a year in 8th grade. This also might be the first time they have generally felt successful in a long time. Maybe these little boosts of confidence are more important than taking algebra skills into their future.

    I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to give them the district mandated end of semester assessment.

    (Long time reader, first time commenter – Thanks for a great blog.)

  6. You teach it b/c its what you like and you see the beauty in it. And, if your like me, b/c you hated every other subject.

    It is the vehicle which you provide students who have no continuity in their lives, with stability and consistency that they need and crave. For some students, life sucks. Showing up to your class gives them hope because through Algebra, you give them 45 mins of safety. They know that one thing in life is certain, Mr. Meyer will passionately deliver an entertaining lesson and try to convince me everyday that it matters.

  7. I have the sense that although many successful people couldn’t presently pass the summative algebra exam, most of them at one point did better than simply passing it. I feel the same sort of irrelevance, stretching for a better answer to why are we learning this? And I am at least personally convinced that the thinking skills involved in grappling with the next hard topic in math is related to all sorts of other skills (un)related to (-b+-sqrt(4ac-b^2))/(2a). Lots of specific skills are not the pre-requisite for opportunity, but the meta-ability to learn and master each of those little specific skills, to buck up and study or ask questions when you don’t understand. To understand an idea so that you can apply it and defend it is a more compelling reason to learn the ins and outs of quadratics.

  8. Find a connection to economics. I teach in the heart of East Oakland. Every student is a sob story. Doesn’t stop me selling them hope in history. I make it relevant to them. Math is VERY relevant. Just find a connection to their life. Teachers are the educational salesmen of the world. What’s your pitch?

  9. The word Al-Jabr means “reunion.” You get this more than your typical peer, Dan. Whether or not any of your students master the concrete skills–memorize the formulas, internalize the order of operations, automatize facts–will be less important ten years from now than if they recognize the existence of the “other” (Saïd, 1978, Orientalism). That our experiences are variable. That we’re ALL connected through our capacity for abstract thought (that “x” has the potential to be anything you imagine it to be).

  10. My very first lecture every semester is the “why are we here? when will we ever use this?” speech. Throughout the class I try to relate what we are learning to real-life applications. But in that first speech I cover the most important reason to learn any math. Solving for x is still solving a Problem. And if you can solve that problem, then there are all sorts of other problems that you can solve too! But at the end of the day you’re not even teaching them how to solve for x, you’re teaching them something much more important: How to THINK.

  11. Maybe it has nothing to do with “solving for X”.

    Maybe it has everything to do with someone noticing that that that kid’s story ultimately matters.

    Not sure how the standards consultants and test prep booklets cover such a variable, but it does center every professional second I choose to spend in the classroom with living students.

    P.S. Oh, and the mid-career admittance that my subject is merely a Trojan Horse (in the best of ways).

  12. @Todd, see I don’t think if I taught ELA, I’d be under this cloud. Maybe the grass is always greener, but writing, reading, and communication has been ubiquitous, even for this left-brainer. Maybe it’s different under PI where you’re less free to wander.

    @Dina, a large part of my problem, and a large part of what the future of learning crowd doesn’t get about math education, is that math’s payoff is often deferred. I mean, I love factoring. I know where it’s going. But it’s difficult, on the basis of a day, to sell factoring. ¶ It’s like when you’re watching The Wire how you’ve gotta train yourself not to expect the payoff at the end of every episode like you do with (eg.) The Office. There is beauty in The Wire‘s individual threads but it’s only in the last few episodes that the whole staggering tapestry becomes obvious. Unfortunately, I can’t count on all of my students making it to calculus. I mean, “any.”

    @Tom, you’ve met my educrush, right? Pretty sure there are kilometers between me and DFH territory.

    @Vincent, beautiful, sturdy stuff there.

  13. Maybe this is Pollyanish of me but I still believe it and I am still a “new-enough” teacher to believe it. I think it really comes down to the relationships you have with your students. They will walk through fire for you if they respect you and yearn for your approval. Maybe it is also manipulative of me, but I find that the more I get them to “fall in love” with me at the beginning of the year, the further they are willing to go with the curriculum. This means I need to “waste” some days and weeks on relationship building. It means I set aside the planned/canned lesson on occasion for some genuine discussion about things that interest my students. It means I work one on one with some of my more difficult students during class time. It means I call them at home. I pat their shoulder. I kneel next to their chair and genuinely listen to what THEY have to say.

    I love my kids and they in turn keep coming back.

    Full Disclosure: I teach 132 kids during five periods a day. I teach Social Studies and one section of TAG Language Arts.

  14. I lived your experience last semester, teaching repeater students who clearly had and still have bigger issues than passing Algebra I. I have been teaching low level kids for the last five years but that class was the most difficult I have ever worked with at my school. I have a sense that our schools are designed or equipped to educate these kids even though most teachers are dedicated and do the best that they can.

  15. I gave up a long time ago on trying to sell kids on the joy/beauty/connections, etc. of learning math. Short answer: it’s something you need to be able to do right now in order to reach your other goals in life. For those who are really interested, we talk more about the connections and applications.

    My students’ self-confidence and motivation increases when they figure out that they can do something. The larger picture of why they should be doing it doesn’t matter as much to them. If I can cheerlead a kid to pick your head up off the desk, try this problem with me (showing you what to do), try one with me standing here (to protect you), try some on your own – I’ll come back… see – you got it! That’s terrific! And do that day after day, even when it looks like no progress is being made, and the head is back down on the table, that kid will begin to understand her own potential and worth, and will start to buy-in.

    Kids know that learning math is important (because everyone has been bothering them about it for the last however many years). So I don’t harp on the importance of what they are doing; instead, I focus on showing them that they can do what they always thought they couldn’t, that they are as smart and capable as anyone else. When kids finally start to believe that, it’s amazing how much they start to like math. It’s not the subject.. it’s all self-perception. And, ultimately, it gives them some measure of control over a chaotic world. Being good at something means a lot when bad things are happening all around you.

  16. Those are questions that I am forced to deal with regularly.

    With my students I always bring it back to opportunity. Being able to solve for x or identify the y intercept or any of the other things we ask our students to do everyday simply separates them from the individuals who cannot do these things.

    This separation between the “cans” and the “can’ts” gives the “cans” access to more of the world.

    Most of my students come from rough backgrounds and they all want to escape their neighborhood.

    Academics is the gateway for them.

    Some of my kids can follow my logic and really work to move forward…some do not.

    I’m still trying to figure out the motivation for those that do not.

    Dan Greene’s approach also works with my kids. Self perception is a huge motivator for my students. When they think they’re good at something they work harder at it…so sometimes I move beyond the whole opportunity discussion to simple ego building.

  17. As per Dan Greene’s last paragraph:

    I have the Child Development study itself if you’re interested.

    And yeah, I get your delayed payoff dilemma. (Not so much of this reaching for relevance in E/LA, as you say.) Is there a way, then, maybe, to give kids a glimpse of that larger context for math– the staggering tapestry?

    Give this a whirl. I don’t dare suggest anything more since my functionality in math is nil.

  18. Just to clarify something I wrote, I actually do always play up my appreciation of the beauty of math, how it works, what it can do, and its living history when I am teaching. What I don’t try to do is hard sell that to the kids who are not buying.

    Dina, I’d love to get a copy of that study. My email is dgreene AT

    Jovan, your line is right on… when they think they are good at it, they work harder. We just have to convince them that they are good at it. And to do that, we have to believe it – which, in all honesty, is not always as easy as it should be.

  19. The more maths you can do, the more options it opens up later in life. Yes, plenty of people get through life and are successful without ever solving a quadratic equation. But on the other hand, plenty of people have had to give up on a chosen career because they didn’t have the maths background necessary for it. And plenty of people change their minds between ages 14 and 20 about what they want to do for a living.

    Plus maths is pretty.

  20. I use math every day because it’s my job.

    My clients use math every day for many reasons, some of which include:

    1. They need to compute how much inventory they need to buy, so they can sell it (solving for “x”).

    2. They need the first derivative of their sales so they can predict their future (okay a little more advanced math, but if they don’t know algebra how are they going to learn this?).

    3. They need to know algebra in order to compute the markup on their products. To determine how much to price an item for, etc.

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

    My other clients, the ones who do not own a business, they use math every day too:

    1. When they decide who has a better job offer and they need to compare not only their wage, but also their benefits and of course, calculate their net paycheck.

    2. When they research the companies they wish to invest in because they’ve learned not to trust someone who makes money selling them this product.

    3. When they shop for insurance and need to determine the probability of need for each coverage because they’ve learned not to trust someone who makes money selling them this product.

    4. When they need to recarpet, retile, etc. the floor in their house.

    5. When they decide to buy a house, a car, etc. so they can determine if they are making a wise decision.

    Our children need to learn math so they can become successful adults. At the very least they need to know math so they don’t have to worry about other people trying to take advantage of their innumeracy.