Friday, February 13, 2015

When Are We Ever Going to Use This???

Are you an adult who has been out in the work world for many years??  

Quick: State the quadratic formula. Bonus points if you are not a teacher.  

Question 2: If you are not a teacher, when did you last use the quadratic formula in your job? 

"When are I ever going to use this?? I am not going to become a math teacher." This is something that my 14-year old daughter is stating these days.  And now I find myself asking  a similar question when it comes to the computational, algorithmic hoops we expect students to jump through.  For example, simplifying complex fractions.  Why do we need to spend multiple days on this topic?  To say we need to do it, because it is needed for the next course or because it is needed on the SAT doesn't sit well with me anymore.

Any job in the real-world involving complex computations is going to involve a computer to do it.  And as for the SAT, a solid background of the basics in algebra, geometry, probability and statistics with a growth mindset will allow a student to be successful.

I used to recite the arguments that many teachers have said relative to "When are we ever going to use this?"  I can hear myself now saying something like, "We live in a democracy and that allows you to make choices later in life.  You can be want you want to be when you grow up, if you have a broad background.  Learning this will allow you to have more options."  Although that is still true, what skills are really needed in the real-world?  Companies say they want students with more math skills, but what does that really mean??  I highly doubt that means doing a question like #24, shown above.  

What really matters in math is the need to have kids learn to ask their own questions and find their own answers.  For example, yesterday we were looking an a traditional angle of depression problem and we figured out that the plane was about 100 miles from the airport.  Do planes really start descending 100 miles from the airport?  Does that seem reasonable?  How long would that take?
The students had no idea how to answer these questions.  One student told me he had only been in a plane once and didn't have any idea how fast a plane goes or how long it would take for a plane to travel 100 miles.  I told the class, "Take out your phones and find the answer." After a brief discussion on website validity and a little metal estimation, we had our answers.

If you have never watched either of these TED Talks, you should.  I am familiar with Dan Meyer's talk, but had not heard of Conrad Wolfram's talk.  In fact, the filming date of July 2010 for Wolfram's talk makes me wonder where I have been for the past 5 years.

How can we makeover our math classes?  How can we get teach real math in our classrooms? I don't have the answers, but I do know that it requires systemic change for it to be lasting change.  Changes involving culture. Changes involving parents. Changes involving colleagues and changes involving myself.  For now, I will work on myself and what I can change within the walls of my classroom.

Note: Moody's Mega Math Challenge is one way to get students involved in doing real-math.  This is an applied math modeling competition for Juniors and Seniors.  I am excited to have a team of 5 students participating from my school this year. To find out more about the challenge, go to