Mathematics: Training for Life
“When are we ever going to use this?”
Think about it. In which subject will students most likely ask this question?
Yes, in math. And we’ve spent years admitting they are right.
If math is, in general, the most hated and feared subject by millions of children in the world, it may be because they don’t see the relationship with everyday life. Despite the fact that we’re always told that math is all around us.
I try to explain this to my children. The other day, my middle child answered, “Sure, Mom, I know when I’m shooting a basket there are plenty of numbers involved: speed, acceleration, angles. But the truth is, when the moment comes I don’t care about any of that stuff. No player calculates that, they just want to score and practice scoring”. And he was absolutely right. But it’s also true that I could have told him those calculations are important for launching objects other than basketballs. Like the rocket that Elon Musk’s SpaceX company launched recently, complete with Tesla on top.
Well as it turns out, an anonymous (and passionate!) math teacher, through his blog on Medium, has decided that it’s time to tell our children the truth: That in their daily life, unless they work in technology or study a STEM career, they will not use most of the math they learn at school ever again.
I mean, when was the last time you used trigonometry? When have we ever needed trigonometry to help us work out discounts or taxes while we shop, follow recipes in the kitchen, calculate mortgage payments, or split the bill (and don’t forget the tip!) at a restaurant? However, this teacher does not go on to say, “Since you’re never going to use it we’re going to stop learning it, because it’s a source of frustration for millions of children”. Which is something that, on the other hand, some in the US are worryingly beginning to argue.
This teacher is against the idea, as are we. He explains that this question doesn’t tend to be asked in other subjects because math is seen as a tool rather than “something with intrinsic value”. This observation explains another curiosity. With regard to math the question is always “when are we ever going to use this?”, rather than the “why do we have to study this?” more commonly asked in other classes. The phrasing of the question demonstrates how students see math as a means to an end, not as knowledge.
For those that want to fight this question head-on, this profesor suggests using a sports analogy. Many athletes find their training exercises boring, tiring, and meaningless. But there’s a reason they do them. When the time comes to shoot a triple in the last second to win the game, of course a player isn’t going to start running laps and doing sit-ups and push-ups. But, just as the Phelps advertisement says (“It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light”) or this one from Steph Curry (“You are the sum of all your training”), your training helps you in that precise moment. The muscles, the mental strength, the reflexes. And this is the point that this teacher makes about math; it’s a discipline that requires mental strength, developing neurons, working out solutions – things that will come in handy later in life, one way or another.
Of course, there are athletes who enjoy their training, and there are always a handful of students who appreciate the beauty of math. It would be a dream come true if there were more, but it’s never going to be all of them. For those, this teacher advises that they be able to appreciate the beauty of the effort in reasoning, in practicing, in exercising the neurons. And in disciplining oneself rather than throwing in the towel.
So, in answer to the question “When are we ever going to use this?”, this teacher’s response is: “You probably won’t”. At which point the class becomes a sea of faces with “I knew it” written all over them. But, there’s a big but: “Doing mathematics builds creative thinking, problem solving, the ability to make an argument, and to see logical flaws in an argument. It helps us to see the unstated premises in people’s statements, and pull out the important concepts in a sea of available information. In short, we’re building some serious life skills when we do mathematics”.
Well now you know. No, we probably won’t use the things we learn in math ever again. But it’s a great form of training for life itself. In addition, Smartick believes in fostering grit, good habits, discipline and building a tolerance of frustration. “Command yourself”, was the motto of those sports advertisements.
With Smartick, children also learn something else: Effort yields results.
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