We have all sat in a math class and at one point asked ourselves, “Why do I need to know this?” Over the course of my career as an educator, I have encountered several answers to this question. Sometimes, “because it will be on the test,” is enough to get students to do their work, but it is not very satisfying, is it? If you are looking for the answer to this all important question either to motivate yourself or your children, then check out the four responses below. I have found them to be some of the best around. Try whichever one you like, or use all four. Leave a comment after this article if you have any feedback or additional ideas.
1. You are learning the mathematical alphabet
Students often want to see the direct applications of the things they learn. But there really isn’t a great answer to the question “Why do I need to know the quadratic formula?” That’s because the things students are learning in primary and secondary math, aren’t really math, any more than the letter “a” is literature. Professionals use things like “the quadratic formula” so ubiquitously that they no longer think about it. It is just a letter in the mathematical alphabet, and they don’t pay attention to letters while they are focused on building words, sentences, and books.
So, the math you learn in high school is not useful, at least not in and of itself. But it is vital as the building blocks of the mathematical language.
2. Mathematics is a foreign language
Mathematics is a language, but it is not a language like Spanish or Cantonese. There are many things you can express with English that you cannot with math, but the advantage of math is that it is spoken by the whole world. Math is spoke not only by people, it is also an essential language for science, economics, business, art, politics, and more! Math is present in the world in ways in which most of us are unaware.
When you learn the language of mathematics, you are capable of taking part in discussions happening all around you, all the time. If you do not learn math, you will be unaware the discussions are happening. All of the people I know who speak a second language have one thing in common: they are glad they speak that language.
3. Mathematical Thinking is Logical Thinking
When you train your mind to think mathematically, you are training your mind to think logically. Jordan Ellenburg’s book “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” is about all the little mistakes people have made throughout history and still make today because they do not think logically. It also explores how learning and understanding mathematics makes those mistakes obvious and easy to avoid. The discussion is not limited to just mathematical mistakes, it discusses logical mistakes more broadly.. Understanding math helps your brain see logic where others cannot.
4. There Are Two Types of Jobs
A good friend of mine once told me there are two things people will pay you to do: the things they do not want to do, and the things they do not know how to do. So, if you would rather not do jobs no one else wants to do, then learn how to do something other people do not know how to do. The “do not know how” types of jobs pay much better anyway.
Obviously, this alone is not a reason why students should learn math. There are plenty of other skills worth learning, and any one of them can transition into a career. However, I have many friends in non-mathematical careers – writers, artists, salesmen, and lawyers – who got to where they are because they had minors in mathematics, or did a little programming on the side, or took an extra statistics class in college. You do not need a PhD in abstract algebra to get some use out of your math skills. Math is everywhere, and people are willing to pay a person who speaks the language and avoids logical errors everyone else misses.
Bonus Answer: Because You Can
Knowledge is not just power, it is freedom. Knowledge is like currency that you can spend without losing and is valuable in its own right. Learn to read and write because you can. Not everyone has that luxury, and they have less power to control their lives because of it. Learn to play a musical instrument because you can. Not everyone has the access to the music you do, and their lives are less beautiful for it. Learn to draw because you can. Most people believe they are incapable, and as a result we will never know what wonderful things they see in their imaginations. Finally, learn math because you can. Some people cannot and other people will not. They will never know the things they could have done if only they had the language, the logic, and the discipline to do them.
This article was written by Glen Hamblin, Regional Administrator of High Performance Tutoring in Utah. Please comment your feedback or ideas below.
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