Following a recent, valid article on TES Secret Teacher, pasting one I wrote about the same topic in 2011 for a school magazine below.
“When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
230pm signals the end of another day, another teaching day dealing with THAT question, THAT annoying, frustrating yet oh so valid query, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
The honest answer probably is, “never”, nevertheless we persist in sharing our passion and enthusiasm for the subject. We continue in trying to share its importance with the world, and let’s face it; we think it is the MOST important of all. We still feel we are the cornerstone, heart and the core so to speak of the school curriculum. Rene Descartes is quoted as saying; “Mathematics is a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other that has been bequeathed to us by human agency.” We still have a privileged position in all educational systems (mathematics is the only subject that all student must study for the IB Diploma) and people still look at mathematicians with a sense of awe. Even the great Isaac Newton once remarked, “Number rule the universe.”
Mathematics is hard, let us be honest, it is not a natural talent for everyone. “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater” said the great Albert Einstein. If difficulty equated to importance, then this article could end now, however it is not so simple.
“Mathematics is like love – a simple idea but it can get complicated” and complicated it does become. Using lego to add numbers quickly becomes mental addition, using a straight edge and compass to bisect lines and draw polygons soon becomes a list of properties and rules, calculating the rate of change ends up with the most amazing (or horrific depending on your outlook!) calculus questions. It is all very exciting and intriguing for us; us being mathematicians.
So what, if mathematics was the language of choice to communicate with possible extraterrestrials? So what, that coding theory was used at Bletchley Park during world war two to crack German war communications?
Buying items, calculating percentages, using recipes, saving funds, budgeting are all concrete examples when Mathematics is being used. However, why does an author need to learn trigonometry? Or a secretary logarithms? We cannot deny that these are valid questions, which lead us back to our favourite question, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
Yes mathematics is all around us and most people accept that. “Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics” – Dean Schlicter. Most people admit, maybe hesitantly, that mathematics is required and is within everything that we see around us. Unfortunately that still doesn’t address the valid question of those individuals who truly do not see a use of topics such as vectors, matrices and dare we mention it again, calculus, but are forced to learn them during those normally challenging teenage years.
Mathematics teaches students to think logically, systematically, rationally and critically. Students tend to become better decision makers due to the clear and clever reasoning skills they have developed during lessons. They are pragmatic, thinking and acting methodically most of the times. At other times they improvise, think outside the box and act on their feet. Many students become better organisers as a result of years of mathematics classes. They solve problems by making quick decisions yet staying balanced throughout. Judging at face value rarely occurs and plans are thorough, well thought out with all possibilities considered. Leadership qualities are commonly found amongst mathematicians.
Unfortunately for Mathematics teachers and mathematicians we cannot show or “prove” that mathematics is responsible for these vital characteristics!
I guess if all else fails, we can always tell students that mathematics can make them very rich and point to the top twenty jobs in the world in which at least 17 require a high level of mathematics (with the others being footballers, actors and directors). And if we really want to be arrogant, we can simply tell them that it will make them look good and feel important!