Wednesday, July 13, 2011

So How Important is Math?

I can't believe I'm writing this :)

Other than my still held belief (here) that learning for the sake of learning is important, I've began wondering just how useful the high school math we teach is.

I have been working on a whole-year PBL approach to my Grade 8 math class.  The basic premise is that students are given a scenario (you're an accountant, you make 60k, you're married) and then asked to perform a bunch of "everyday" tasks.  Things like doing their taxes, making a budget, getting a mortgage, choosing the best items to buy at the grocery store, etc.

All of these tasks involve math, and all are what I would call "legitimate" tasks in that people actually DO have to make these decisions (no trains leaving stations, for example).

What I encountered, however, is how much our society has gotten AWAY from the math of these basic things.

When I started to have students work out how much tax they would be paying, it dawned on me that I never had to do those calculations because QuickTax did it for me, and better than I ever could.

When I set up the assignment to chose the best items at the grocery store, I remembered that all the work is already done because the store puts unit prices on everything already.

You get the idea.

So while I've created, in my opinion, an interesting program for the year and I think the students will enjoy it, I really haven't opened anyones eyes to the uses of math.

I enjoy math a lot, and I'm struggling to think about where I've used it.  Granted, I've had to do rate and distance calculations on trips, or calculate basic equations when planning events, but that's all pretty straightforward.  Perhaps it's because I KNOW how to do this stuff, but I struggle to think of daily math use.

So, other than knowing for the sake of much math do we really use?


  1. I think it's useful to clarify here the difference between the computations of math, and mathematical reasoning. While you may not be doing much computation yourself anymore (outside of school), I suspect you are still doing a fair bit of mathematical reasoning.

    In terms of what this means for math education, I'd recommend checking out or http://www.mathpickle.come for other alternatives to our current system.

  2. A very fair point, and one I (and probably my students) will engage in over the next year. I'd be very interested in recording when we use mathematical reasoning. I wonder if we even notice...

    I still think it's important, and I still value every day the importance of mathematics in the classroom - looking at it from a 13 year olds point of view, however, I can see now more clearly the argument of "When are we going to use this".

  3. Thats some interesting material. I've been thinking of a similar project where students have to consider various incomes and have to plan a monthly budget. Something like that. Or what can you buy on ______ dollars a day?

    Also I usually think math is not this important. The mathematical mindset is extremely important, but all of this particularl content that we require is not strictly this important. I'll trade a huge chunk of content if every student leaves school thinking that a part of their brain is a mathematician's brain.

    Great post!

  4. So we are teaching kids how to do math that can be done faster and better on a computer. If I caught an employee doing long hand math on the job I would tell them to stop and use the computer in front of them. I think there is too much emphasis on how to do computations and not enough on what computations are necessary basic on the situation.

  5. It's a difficult problem however because while I completely agree with you - the why is so much more important, the only way you can learn the skill (when to use what) is with content. Therefore, we HAVE to teach content similar to this to get at the skills we need.

    The question then comes down to if we always use a technological device. I say no - as soon as we start reducing our world down to "I'll look this up, then this, then this" we lose so much of what makes us human - the ability to learn.

    Good points, and I do wish that there wasn't so MUCH content so I could cover the problem solving and theoretical stuff better, but there has to be a balance.

  6. You may use Quicken to compute your taxes, but if you make a mistake then you will rely on your number sense to identify and correct the error.

    Most items at grocery stores have unit prices listed, but some items may not, or they may use incompatible units for similar items. For example, when I buy Coke, the unit price for 12-packs is given in cents per ounce, but the unit price for 2-liter bottles may be given in cents per liter.

    I think that we have to admit that we do not know how (or if) students will use math in their future lives. I can think of several instances where I have used math in ways that I could not have anticipated.