Cornered By The Real World

Samuel Otten catalogs different responses to the “when will I ever use this?” question and points out their shortcomings:

I believe that thinking and acting as if the justification for teaching and learning mathematics is found solely in everyday applications can be dangerous. Mathematics does not exist only to serve other professions, nor is it merely a collection of algorithms and procedures for dealing with real-world situations. Such a mind-set essentially paints our discipline into a weak and lonely corner and leaves undefended many of its greatest aspects.

A fantastic piece and a quick read. His closing recommendation is dead on. When kids students ask that question, they aren’t really asking that question, right?

Featured Comment

Carl Malartre:

Not yet sure what to think. I’m trying to remember when I was 12 how I would react to How would your students react?

2012 Aug 28. Damon Hedman offers a great example of the teacher getting cornered by the real world:

Student: When am I ever going to use this?
Hedman: [mentions a gazillion real life uses]
Student: But those don’t apply to me!
Hedman: [bangs head against the wall]

No one wins at that game.

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. When kids students ask that question, they aren’t really asking that question, right?

    It depends; the closest I’ve found to a litmus test for if they mean the question seriously is if they mention a specific profession at the same time as their complaint.

    I’ve posted somewhere (in the comments of some blog or another, it could be this one, the Internet has become one big meta-blog) that I took on the challenge from two students whilst teaching logarithms, one who was interested in psychology and the other who was interested in photography. Later in the week I ran a psychology experiment we analyzed using logarithms and did a lesson straight out of the book involving F-stops. The psychology student got extremely excited (“I get to be doing this!”) and I never heard a complaint from her again. Predictably, the photography student was absent the day I the particular customized lesson.

    (Once I had a student in my advisory — not teaching math, but doing career stuff — who wanted to be a professional bowler. I wasn’t sure what to do with that, really.)

    I admit I’m a little suspicious of any response that mentions superior problem solving skills. The supposed effect seems to be anecdotal and if that’s really the goal, there surely are more efficient methods than doting on the division version of the distributive property and Decartes’s Rule of Signs. We’ve taught a problem solving class at our school before using the book Crossing the River with Dogs, but the content is much different than a traditional algebra-trig-etc. track.

  2. “…or worse yet, that I am a lofty mathematician up in
    the clouds of irrelevance.”

    Today’s irrelevance is tomorrow’s technology.

  3. I really like both the article and Jason’s comment because they stimulate teachers to think “Why am I teaching this.” The right answer is different for every context, and sometimes it’s hard to find it. I think a lot of teachers who don’t serve students well are also not understanding this question and I wonder whether department or team level meetings around this question would be a good use of teacher’s time.

    There are also implications in Jason’s comment for what math curriculum looks like. I always recommend my high school statistics class to students who are tired of math classes that are about “equation solving.” Since only a small fraction of problem solving involves solving equations, what if a math class taught and emphasized strategies besides using equations. My hope would be that like the Dana Center in Texas, math organizations would work hard to change state standards in a way that de-emphasizes equation solving.

    Finally, I want to comment on the article’s discussion of appeals to career readiness. I feel it is important for teachers and students to be able to explain why students are required (by state law and school regulations) to take Algebra 2 and/or Pre-Calculus. If kids were allowed choose not to take Algebra 2, for example, then they are potentially closing the door on an engineering degree. Or what if a school tells a student, “you don’t need to take Pre-calculus, because you aren’t going to be a scientist.” I personally don’t believe it’s ethical to let students close those doors while they are in high school. And its not hard to convince students that a world where Algebra 2 is an elective would have less diversity in college math and science classes. I wonder if math teachers disagree?

  4. No disagreement from me here. It certainly is important to point out that some mathematics is used in the day to day lives of students, but is certainly not the only, or even the best reason to learn mathematics.

    However, that being said, we do need to answer that questions with reasons kids get. “You may use this in college” is rarely a satisfactory answer to an 8th grader wondering why the hell he’s being forced to learn algebra.

  5. I agree that the majority of students who ask “when will we ever use this”, have less than sincere motives when they ask the question. Instead of trying to expand on the great universality of mathematics, which is not what the students are actually seeking, I tend to twist the question.

    I will often scan the room, looking for athletes, or students who I know are heavily invested in activities. For example, find a star football player. Inquire about the number of hours they must spend each week practicing, studying plays, working out. How many hour each week are dedicated to the pursuit of football? It works equally well with a musician or artist, where hours are spent on an endeavor. If need, list these hours on the board.

    Then, when you have them hooked into talking about how much time and dedication they place in their activity…ask them “so, when will you ever use that in real life?”. Clearly, a very small proportion of us will ever become professional athletes or musicians.

    With many classes, this causes a discussion of the many great residual effects of playing a sport: team-building, good health, time management, pride in accomplishment.

    So, when will we ever use math in real life? We may not specifically use the math we learn (nobody will pay us to sit in a cubicle and factor polynomials), but the lessons are all the same.

  6. My question after reading this is….How do I create a classroom environment that engages students so this question is not being asked and in addition…Teach them the skills they need to be prepared for college or ready for the workforce?

  7. Whenever other teachers at school (from other departments) talk about the math curriculum’s irrelevance to “real life” I always throw it back on them – why is it that Math is the only subject that has to pass this test? When am I ever going to use poetry scansion, or use my knowledge of the causes of WWII? Yet, I’m totally for having these things in the curriculum of course, and I enjoyed them when I was in school. They aren’t there because they’re “useful.” Something as simple as a Sudoku is proof that math can be fun and satisfying even if you aren’t using it to do something practical. I agree with a lot of the previous comments that the “real world” moniker needs to be changed to “well motivated.”

  8. “and, most important, a desire to solve problems and make
    sense of the world. Students have natural abilities with respect to these mathematical ways of thinking and
    use them, as shown here, to point out the insufficiencies of our responses to the questions “When am I ever
    going to use this?” and “Why do we need to learn this?””

    Way to turn the issue on it’s head! The article was enjoyable and gave thought to the to academic pursuit for the simple enjoyment of it.

    Cultural expectations play a huge role in our perspectives here, and why we (math teachers) have been painted into a corner. As a recent article on (I looked, but can’t remember which) stated how strange it would be for someone in a social situation to say proudly that they are illiterate, yet to declare yourself to be poor at math is no problem.

    Above, Bowman Dickson points out such a situation with colleagues of all things!

    I teach in Vienna, Austria at an international school, and I can proudly tell you that this cultural norm is not everywhere. I’m even more proud to tell you that a healthy appetite for learning math goes beyond my robust S/E Asian population. In fact, my Eastern European students and those from any part of the former Soviet Block all have a the type of attitudes towards math that we would want to see in the western cultures…

  9. The first day of school I tell students that I could care less about answering the “when will I use this question” b/c the reality is often that you won’t have to.

    I then explain that we CAN use math to look deeper into something and learn more about it than what we knew before and that math is that tool that helps uncover those “mysteries” so to speak.

    The activities I create and use in class usually try to follow this idea. I’m never going to expect a student to sit down and figure out the probability of their favorite song coming up next when they hit shuffle on their iPod on their own, but doing that in class helps them see that we can use math to answer that “what are the chances?” question that I know they have asked themselves before.

    It’s about going deeper into the world around you – courtesy of math.

  10. I teach two GATE classes this year, and while I agree that usually, the ones who ask that question are the ones grasping for any escape from applying themselves, I see some sincerity in the Honors kids seeking true use of their skills.
    Here’s my response:

    “Math is like a weight room. When I was in college, I’d see the huge football players come in and do calf raises for 45 minutes. They will never need to use that in the game, but the muscles they build will be applied.
    Math is like that. You probably won’t have to factor a third-degree polynomial at work, but your mind will be stretched into abstract thinking in ways that others’ won’t. You’ll be able to reason better, argue better, and see more sides of an issue, which makes you a better student, boyfriend, wife, employee, or boss.”

    So shut up and factor.

  11. I read someone’s blog who suggested that we respond with “You’ll never use it. If you ever use anything I teach you here in the next 10 years come back and tell me and I’ll give you $10”.

    I’m not quite ready to go that route, but I often tell my students that we learn it because it’s torture. We were tortured when we went to school to learn maths, and so now they must be tortured. It’s a vicious cycle that really does need to be broken sometime… but alas not this year! It generally breaks the ice enough that I don’t get the question again.

    I do go on to try to explain brain pathways and thought processes and the like but generally stop as soon as their eyes start to glaze over.

    As for the sports / musical analogies here, the problem with those is that most students would consider the sports / music as “fun”, whereas if they’re asking the question in the first place they’re not ready to call Math fun.

    I do think that 95% of the time the students ask this question simply to provoke or protest.

  12. I have learned to relish the question “when will we use this?” or “why do we study this?” I find it provides a chance, especially early in the year with new students, to be real, to be less scary and to be human. To break the ice as Chris mentioned.

    I have gone the route of saying “you won’t use this.” Often getting the response of a dead quiet room and a few slack jaws. Sometimes I’ll continue by challenging them to think what of they learned in any other class that might be useful… Other times I’ll continue with, “…but I hope you will enjoy the process.” To which I often get even queerer looks.

    I find that when I’m doing my job well (in my opinion) that my students are engaged, potentially arguing with one another about an answer or a process and the question doesn’t come up. No teenage boys have ever looked at each other while playing a video game and asked “how will this be useful?” When something is engaging the question of its usefulness doesn’t come up.

    For myself math being engaging is the key idea. Not “real world” or “application.”

  13. Often students are looking for an easy excuse not to do their homework because it doesn’t pertain to their lives. But there are the few who are really interested in how they can apply these concepts to their lives. At this point the teacher needs to be prepared to answer this question because if they are not prepared they will lose the students that are interested in the concept and never gain the students who don’t think it matters to their lives in the first place.

  14. “When am I ever going to use this?”

    Rather than scheming a reactive defense to this question, we as math teachers should anticipate and embrace it. It’s a totally natural, understandable human response to unfamiliar, potentially tedious tasks. Hell, I find myself wondering the same thing (about teaching, not math) about the ideas in many professional development sessions, faculty meetings, blog posts, etc. I would recommend, however, that we don’t get too attached to the idea of “utility,” or that we at least think of “use” in a broader sense. “Why is it valuable to do this math” is a better, less biased question.

    Math should mount an affirmative defense, justifying itself before students have the chance to ask, *rolling eyes, slightly whiny* “when are we going to use this”. Because, at that point you’re right Dan, they aren’t really asking that question. But if the question is honestly posed and honestly answered, it can make a world of difference in students’ motivation. And “why” IS an important question.

    One problem I see in how teachers answer this question is that we seem to want one big catch-all answer that will apply to all content, skills and courses. “You’re going to use it someday” “for calculus” “in engineering” “you probably won’t use it” etc. The reality is (especially for HS mathematics), a variety of reasons exist, each of which will be relevant for SOME students. If you set you class up around “real world” problems, some students will love it while others are turned off. If you go the “math IS it’s own context” route (Lockhardt, etc) you will engage and disengage different batches of students. And, as Otten (and Mr. Vaudrey, and the CCSS) put it, the application of some HS math is not the content, but rather the mathematical practices and problem-solving processes.

    I don’t have the answer as to how to justify the existence of every item in the curriculum. But I think I do a good job of answering the “why” question, because I do it WITH the students. The first day of class, the students brainstorm reasons for studying math. They’re brutally honest: “to graduate” “so my mom won’t kill me” “I need it for pre-med I think” “I want to be an architect” “I like getting the right answer”… the specifics vary each year, but they always fit into 5 or so categories. The power here is that the students are the ones putting these reasons forward, and endorsing them as legitimate. That means that all I have to do is tie future content/skills back to these reasons. As we encounter new material, answering the “why” question happens early and honestly. If we don’t have good, compelling reasons for the “why” questions, students SHOULD be challenging us, because we’re probably wasting their time.

  15. Sam, I like your comment.

    Here you speak about the future: “That means that all I have to do is tie future content/skills back to these reasons.”

    Did you ever ask your students if the math they already learned in the past was useful? What do you think they would reply to that question? I’m wondering if math becomes useless in grade x in their head?


  16. I have come to this post a bit late, but I’d like to say I really appreciate all the comments above, and thanks to Dan for raising this issue again.

    I am currently teaching a second year “math methods” course for preservice primary teachers. Many of them don’t really “get” math in any real or useful sense, but I get the sense they accept that the math they will teach to 5-12 year olds is actually useful, and so the question “When will [they] every use this??” isn’t an issue.

    However, asked to justify the teaching of introductory algebra or intermediate geometry, for example, I believe my students would struggle to answer in any meaningful way. For them, math really is a functional pursuit that you need, like you need to floss your teeth and carry out the garbage.

    Thanks for all the high-school teaching perspectives (special mention to @Bob, @Mr Vaudrey and @Sam, about explaining the benefits of learning to think mathematically, without necessarily being able to identify a specific adult life context for using everything you teach.

    Great discussion!

  17. After reading this article, I realize that I am guilty of the very thing discussed by Samuel Otten. I get the question “when will I use this” and often respond with a when answer. I try not to stay focused on one profession that they will use this for but do often retort with a real world situation (ie. Paychecks, measuring for rugs in your future home, etc.). However, after reading the article I think I have to reconsider how I respond to that question and focus more on the strategies and tools that we use in Math class and how they pertain to life.

  18. Hi

    I agree that it is not all just about applications. I suggest asking the kids why are we learning something.

    For example, recently I asked my students to blog about complex numbers. Why are we learning them? What are they good for? They aren’t even real.

    Kids came up with apps eg art – Mandelbrot set, extra dimensions, electromagnetic fields etc. But also many kids said the beauty was that before we were just writing “no solution” but now we can express the answer with more precision, and that is satisfying for many of them. Others talked about the development of the number systems over time: looking at how negative numbers and irrationals have seemed “unreal” too, when first discovered. It is the beauty of taking our number system to a new level. Many students appreciate that fact in its own right, without there needing to be an application.

    I like the idea of asking the students because they are the ones that have to resolve the questions of why are we learning it, so they need to “own” the response. Also it invites them to think more deeply about the context of the mathematics, which I also value.

  19. Having an apprpriate answer for students asking,”Why do we learn mathematics?” is critical to student engagement. The answer speaks to our ability to truly make the learning of mathematics engaging and worth the time and energy needed to become problem solvers of the words social and political ills. Student are aware of why the practice a sport for hours. There goal is to win and beyond winning, become a profession athlete.

    I am in my 14 years of teaching, 10 years ago I realize there are application of math that were not presented in my algebra 2 book. Math has applications in most professions and in our everyday lives. When my wife was in labor, I gained a deeper understand of quadratics, because the graph of her labor pains could be fit to quadratics equations. This way also true when I saw the image of her eye, foci had a different meaning for me.

    We must resist the urge to continue to teach the way we were taught.

  20. “they aren’t really asking that question, right?”

    That’s my belief. I think it mostly means “I am not engaged, because I just don’t get the point of this.”

    I think the right answer is “you won’t,” because that’s the same answer in the other subject areas either. They’re also not going to diagram any sentences, do deep analysis of poetry, identify rhyming structures, name exact dates of historical events or a million other things.

    Eventually they’ll get higher up in their studies and spend times on other things they’ll never do. Studying computer science required me to learn how to code linked lists and sorting algorithms. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I ever write another one – they have libraries packaged with every common current language for that.

    But now I’m armed to recognize the core mistakes that writing a BAD sorting algo looks like. Just like people who diagram sentences are prepared to write good ones and folks who learn to analyze poetry will do better jobs of identifying what any written text says.

    I think if I was in front of a classroom and felt like I HAD to answer this question I’d probably go with “you’ll use it when you spot people trying to cheat you.” If you rely on other folks to determine how much carpet or sod you need then you’re never going to be able to know when they’re offering you a bad deal.

  21. I liked the article.

    “When are we going to use this?” is masked frustration and lack of confidence. It’s easier to say “I won’t do this”, or “I don’t need to do this”, rather than say “I’m struggling to do this”.

    One thing I would consider doing is preempting the question on the first day of school while you have the students’ attention and you have the momentum to have a sincere conversation about the purpose of math study and not solely be entertaining students’ frustrations. I believe most students know deep down, that at some level, math is useful. They know about the high paying careers, and they are all too familiar with the societal pressures to succeed in math.