Saturday, June 15, 2013

When am I Ever Going to Use This?

After 16 years of teaching, I know this question comes up at various times throughout EVERY year. I gauge the intention of the asker. Do they just want to waste time, so they can sit and zone out? Are they being ornery? Do they really want to know? I also have changed every year I teach, and as I ponder the question myself throughout the years.

The subject came up again during the last days of school when my seniors in calculus were going over good and bad things throughout their HS lives. One student mentioned the fact that she learned things she would never use again, and was maybe wondering what the point of it all was. My response to her was many fold but brief since others wanted to have their say on their HS experiences. I responded that even though I haven't directly used biology, for example, EVER after HS, I'm glad I learned it because now when news stories come up or research advances, I can be part of the conversation and have a semi-inkling of what's being discussed and what's at stake, and more importantly, I know enough to go find more information if I so choose. I also mentioned that learning a wide variety of things makes you a well-rounded person and it would be a shame if everyone only knew limited things because then their lives would be more constrained.

But in math class when students ask (and maybe I'm naive, but I think they truly want to know most of the time), I start out with, "you may never directly use this, but here is how it is used by others ....." and I make sure to have an example, or mention that I'll find one and get back to them.

I think a broader answer could be, "future employers want to know that you can learn challenging things that you're maybe not so interested in and then be able to apply them successfully in your work situation." Another answer could be, " learning and mastering and struggling through difficult-for-you concepts makes you smarter and more confident in learning in general." I guess we could also add, that when you stop learning or trying to learn things, then your brain starts to get flabby and liquidy and ooze out of your ears. That's not going to be good for anyone.


  1. My general answer to this is that math class offers excellent opportunities to develop problem solving skills, which are transferable to many other areas of endeavor throughout their lives.

    I'm a computer scientist, and one day while doing a career intro for middle school students, one student asked me what the most useful thing I learned in school was, and upon reflection I answered that it was the problem solving skills (and honestly, I probably learned more in math classes than CS classes in that regard). I don't use any of the same programming languages I learned in school, and much of the theory and best practice has changed over the years. So... learning how to learn and how to solve problems was really the crux of how my education helped me be able to continue moving forward with my career over the past 20+ years.

  2. Thanks for that ... another great response to the question. I'm still working on conscientious ways to get them to problem solve instead of it just happening because they're forced to. But I guess it's not an easy answer.

  3. I used to tell my calc class that solving problems was like looking at clues, solving mysteries, like CSI. The strategies they learned would carry over to other subjects. Many found this to be true.

  4. I like the idea of solving a mystery. Thank you, PO.

  5. Anonymous5:44 PM

    The kids like the poster: "When Am I Ever Going to Use This?" I have put it in my class room every year. It lists math topics and which occupations would use the skill.

  6. I forgot about that is extensive.