How to Answer ‘When am I going to use this?’

Parabola -x^2 with vertex shifted from origin ...
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If you’ve ever taught or tutored math you’ve encountered the question, “When am I ever going to use this?” Maybe even hundreds of times.

And no doubt you’ve tried the answers that you’ve heard your math teachers give:

  • You’ll need it in a future job.
  • You’ll want to balance your check book someday.
  • Blah, blah, blah.

I was on the Teachers.net chatboard last night and there’s a discussion in the math teachers section about how to answer this question.

I was horrified to read that some teachers actually respond with, “How about as homework, you find the answer to that question.”

Egad!

We all know it’s a discrationary tactic. We know that there are lots of good uses of math. And we’ve experienced our answers shot down with, “I’m not planning on doing a math job for a living, so I won’t need it,” or “I’ll hire a CPA to do my checkbook.”

There’s only one right answer to this question.

“You’ll never use the math I teach you. Ever.”

I offer $10 to anyone who can come back to me in 10 years and tell me that graphing functions (or whatever we are learning that day) has actually had an applicable use in their life.

Of course they’re horrified at this answer. They give me looks like, “What? Are you an alien here to invade our classroom. Did you eat the real Bon?” No teacher has ever been that honest.

Graphing functions is virtually useless as a real tool. As is most of what we teach.

I used to get phone numbers from men at bars with my amazing use of the quadratic formula, but that’s only something you can tell college students. And they don’t buy it anyway.

Teaching math is teaching brain exercises.

The reason we teach and learn graphing functions (or other math) is to exercise a part of the brain that we rarely get to use. A part that will get used sometime later in a weird way.

We’re building new paths in the brain. We’re carving a way to alternative problem solving that might one day be useful in solving interpersonal, business, automotive, or other type of problems we have.

I tell them that math class is a game. A fun time to escape once a day. This is a play time to stretch their brains and do something completely different.

And I certainly don’t pile pissiness upon pissiness with the attitude of “If you’re going to challenge me, small menial student, then I’m going to give you extra homework.” That really motivates students… to hate math.

How about you? How do you answer the question? Are you supporting future math happiness? Share your thoughts in the comments.



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31 Responses to How to Answer ‘When am I going to use this?’

  1. I agree with your point here, but I have noticed a few different responses when I tell students “the truth”.

    1. They appreciate the honesty, and continue hating the subject because they simply hate stretching their brains.
    2. They think that I am trying to pull a Jedi mind trick of some kind.

    The students who enjoy the subject don’t ask this question to start with.

    My question is, do teachers of other subjects get asked this as much as math teachers? I remember sitting in English, analyzing a poem, and thinking “why do we have to learn this?” But I never asked that teacher why we have to learn this stuff. Why does it seem more common to ask this in math but not other subjects?

    Not asking that question in English could be my single greatest regret.

    OK, top ten maybe 🙂

    • I totally agree, Greg. I have found, though, that when they continue hating math after my answer to their question, they have to find something else to hold on to. Before they could say, “I hate math because not only am I not going to use this, but my teacher lies to me.” Instead they say, “I hate math because…” Or they have no real reason to hate math anymore, so after a while the just quit hating math.

      I think my hope is to take away the “hate math handle” for them.

      And regarding asking the question about English – have you seen my post about that? I think you’d like it! Check out How to get people to stop saying ‘I hate math’.

      Thanks for the comments, Greg!

    • Maybe it’s not the stretching of the brain they hate…maybe they hate feeling stupid because they don’t track what you’re saying. Maybe they’re tired of years and years of being graded poorly for not being gifted in that area. Maybe they solve problems creatively without the pain of linear thinking, see the world differently, and don’t want to be laced in the straight jacket that the failing school system has locked them into. Everyone is wired differently! I am not lazy or hate exercising my brain…in fact I do it all the time in wonderful imaginative ways! How wonderful NOT to be created as a left side ofthebrain thinker. You can have your math, your algebra, your calculus. What does it prove when you finally figure out the right answer? It’s already been done. My world is wonderful and I am free from the horrific shackles of school and especially of graphing! I am free to exercise my brain in ways you’ll never discover with math, because math limits you. And yes, I absolutely HATE math!!

      • “What does it prove when you finally figure out the right answer? It’s already been done.” Please explain to me the millenium prize problems and how no one has solved them yet. Oh and the 300 to 600,000 theorems created each year, through guess what? Creativity and intelligence that’s what, thinking outside the box. The math you took was merely practice to get to that point. Algebra was created by people it wasn’t homework given by God after English class. To say a subject is unimaginative is pure fallacy and I’m glad the rest ignored you, but I wanted to teach you a thing or two about your ill logic.

      • Seems you’re bringing a lot more negativity into this, Jan.

        And in fact, all that creativity of which you speak IS used in math. In fact, the best mathematicians are whole brained thinkers, not left brained thinkers.

        And math certainly doesn’t limit you. However, you might have felt limited at some point. And for that, I’m very sad for you.

    • I simply say that I have to teach the future garbage men of America and the future rocket scientists of America and I don’t know, and they don’t know, where their career will fall. Obviously garbage men don’t need too much math to do their job but rocket scientists do. They usually come back and tell me what they want to be and then say that they won’t need math for that career. I respond by saying “Prove it.” 🙂

  2. Math class might be a game, but it is a game that students are compelled to play, and they rightly fear that they will be judged as unintelligent if they do not play the game well.

    I am teaching algebra at a community college, and I feel that my course is being used as a filter. A student could be weeded out of the nursing program if she cannot find the vertex of a parabola, and she will not be comforted by the fact that it is just a game.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dave.

      Any chance you can grade based on how much the pre-service nurses develop their critical thinking? Like instead of finding the vertex of a parabola (and the 32 other things that are required), each person can pick one or two things and thoroughly investigate each.

      It is very important that nurses (and so many others) have critical thinking skills. So the point of college algebra is for them to gain the logic and reasoning skills. If you can make the argument that they have done that, do you really need them to find the vertex?

      • Unfortunately I don’t think that would be a possibility for Dave. If you have every pursued a degree in a science related field, you know the science classes, particularly physics, that are required use many different topics from basic algebra and if Dave has not taught them, the students will suffer in their science classes. So while I think Bon that you’re right about math being a brain excercise, the way the american system is set up, we algebra teachers are unable to deviate much from the topics given.

        • You may be right, Lisa. I wonder, though, if they had the confidence and the logical thinking skills if they wouldn’t be able to extrapolate what they needed as they came across it.

          Maybe?

    • Hi Dave,

      I also teach algebra at a community college, and like you see the course being used as something of a “gatekeeper” for a lot of programs. I agree that trying to frame math as a game might not be the most appropriate response in this situation, because the stakes of the game are very high.

      What I try to do in this situation is to emphasize “pattern recognition” and “attention to detail”. I find that focusing on those skills helps to broaden the definition of “math” so that it encompasses more of the things they’ll be doing in their chosen career path.

  3. Math is a teaser. If your math IQ is in the top 1% of 1% you get to work in a think tank and use math abundantly. If not, your math IQ might just as well be average. (OUCH!)

    • I’m not sure what determines a math IQ, Bill. The fact is that we all use thinking skills and math classes help us improve these.

      You don’t have to be in a think tank to need thinking skills.

      Thanks for stopping by, Bill!

  4. Bon,

    I currently work with underprepared college students that are part of a scholarship program at a private university. I have given many students an explanation that is remarkably similar to yours. You are the first person I have heard from using a similar explanation and reading your response made me smile. Thank you for your insight and website. I will have my NYS teaching certification for Math grades 7 – 12 in a few months. I look forward to revisiting your site as I learn and grow.

  5. Hi, everyone im currently in high school and I know it’s kind of off for me to be here but, i used to hate or love math at the same time. Now im struggling to graduate, but i just realized that math is kind of a game (well to me that is) and i am on APEX to regain some credits. The point im tring to make is :why can’t other students like myself see that math is like a game that actually helps u in real life no matter what it is u want to be.. TO myself (and maybe you teachers) math is likee having a higher level of common sense in a way that can make even the hardest abstacle<–(maybe wrong spelling) look easy. it was today when i noticed all of this and have chosen to accept and learn math no matter what distractions are around me because one day im going to NEED it. thank you all for having this website. oh one more thing to all you teachers, keep on teaching math because you are all doing something that is going to make the world a better place in the future…

  6. I love this answer. I think it would be a great way to begin any middle school/high school/college math class too, particularly if you did a mini brain lesson and showed exactly which parts of the brain math exercises and develops, and then give lots of examples of how you use those parts of the brain.
    Alternatively, you could mention that they may one day have children who want to learn math, and they won’t want their kids to think they are dumb when they can’t help them with their homework. 🙂

  7. I try to change the question to, “What can I do with this stuff?” I think of the things math can help build which leads to an endless list of answers.

  8. I’m glad you have to courage and honesty to admit that we NEVER, unless we find ourselves in the unlikely position of mathematician or advanced engineer, use more than basic math in our adult lives.

    But then you say that we teach this math to access parts of the brain that never or rarely get used. To which I would respond, “is this the ONLY way we can access and use that part of our brain?”

    And if we never or rarely use this part of our brain, doesn’t that show us that perhaps it isn’t that necessary to use this part of our brain and be successful?

    • I think accessing it and strengthening it can be beneficial. If others don’t use it much, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. After all, if you can and do, then you’ll be that much stronger.

      Regarding if you CAN access and strengthen it in a different way, John – sure. It’s called gaming. Strangely enough, gamers are building that logic/reasoning part and their parents (and society) is acting like they are just loafs.

      In fact, that’s how I ended up where I am – gaming with my dad. I just decided to use those skills in math instead of engineering, science or fashion.

  9. I have been working on an essay that says the exact same thing…never. I have never used the quadratic formula outside of the classroom and ever will. It is all about learning how to solve a problem you have not seen before using a given set of tools and logical reasoning. I don’t say it exactly that way in class. I do say “Probably never. But I can promise you that you will use the skills you have an opportunity to develop here every day of your life. You will have to solve problems in your life and the problem solving skills you learn here will apply to those other non-mathematical problem you will face.”s

    • You should never describe math as a game especially to teens ! Many of us are in sports and in those sports we will get competitive .we get frustrated when we lose therefore when we don’t secede in solving an equation or some sort of math problem well only get frustrated .I’m a student and I completely understand that the extra stuff math teachers teach can help us expand our knowledge . The only problem is while you math teachers teach us these things they completely forget about the basics that we need to know . Teachers need to teach us what we absolutely need to know and then they can teach us the harder stuff . I also understand that there are other people in our class that can take in that information but those are the people who are just naturally good at math . Just like how some people are good at singing , spelling , poetry ,etc . My point is it’s harder for an average student to take in . I would also like to point out that no matter how much tutoring a teacher offers a student in my position 80% of the time will not take it . For example I’m in athletics which means I am in volleyball season right now which also means that I am practicing with my team for many hours of my day which makes me unavailable for those times that the teacher offers tutoring . And most of the time when I do tell my teacher that I cannot attend tutoring and I tell her the reason why she says ,”that’s just an excuse ” . I swear I could say that I couldn’t do my homework because a family member died and we had to go to a funeral and she would say something like “you could’ve done your homework on your way there ” or “you should’ve done it when you got home then ” of course this is not all teachers but I would like to point out that no teachers knows my schedule outside if school . If your a math teacher please take all these thoughts into deep though .

      • Thanks for stopping by, Kansas.

        You make several good points that seem to be all related to one fact – it’s about YOU! Many teachers lose sight that you’re our focus, not us.

        Thank you so much for sharing!

  10. I’m coming from a student perspective here, as I’m a Junior in High School taking Intermediate College Algebra. I appreciate the explanation of learning math not for the purpose of the mathematics but as a brain workout of sorts.

    But, couldn’t we accomplish this task while also teaching students something far more applicable to their lives? I understand what math is useful to my life and I also know what I’m never going to use, so why should we make math courses that aren’t widely applicable to students mandatory?

    Couldn’t we easily leave them in the system for those who wish to explore careers that use advanced algebra skills, but let those who don’t need or want those skills dedicate that time to something more relevant to them?

    • Pardon me, I mis-typed up there,

      “…why should we make math courses that AREN’T* widely applicable to students mandatory?”

    • Good point, Trent! I’ve often told homeschool families to teach programming instead of math. At least for a year (especially when kids and parents get super frustrated).

      It’s really about logic and reasoning. Not about algebra. Exactly why many people took the philosophy course of formal logic at my college instead of more official math courses.

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