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High School Math: Will I ever use this in my life?

High School Math: Will I ever use this in my life?

Suppose that you have just introduced your 7th grade students to the basic concepts in geometry and one of your students happens to ask you the following question: “Will I ever use this in my life?” Have you ever thought of what your answer would be?

“Will I ever use this in my life?” This is an extremely tricky question that each of us, as a math teacher, has come across and had to answer every now and then. Some students often use this question as a means of creating a highly controversial discussion in order to avoid the rest of the class; others really want to hear a rational viewpoint. In fact, the answer to this question is simple: No, most of the topics the students learn in math or any other class will hardly be of use in their lives. As the topics get more complicated, this becomes even more dramatic. When does a student really use the concept of probability in his life, unless of course he or she becomes a professional poker player, for instance? Or when will a student have to calculate the areas of simple or complex figures unless he or she becomes an architect?

Some of our colleagues occasionally fall into the trap set forth by this question and desperately make up exceedingly artificial real life situations, related with the current topic of concern, which often fail to be convincing (I strongly recommend avoiding responses based upon “fabrication” unless they really make sense). However, I do believe that this question deserves a logical answer just like every other question, regardless of its intention. In the way I see it, this question presents a unique opportunity to deliver a wise message which will not only attract the attention of the students making them concentrate on the class, but will also help us gain the respect of the students as well as their parents, since the students evidently “talk it through”.

Here is my answer for this question:

OK, you want to know whether you will use this concept in your lives or not. I guarantee that 99.9% of the time you will use neither this topic nor many others in your lives. Most of what you have learned here in this class will sooner or later evaporate unless you become a math teacher like me (which is very much fun, by the way). However, you still have to learn these concepts, but why? We teach you math because we want to improve your analytical abilities; in other words, we want to make you smarter, so that you will earn the capacity to handle harder situations in the future whether you choose to go to college or not.

We teach you history not only because we want you to have a basic knowledge of your past but also for improving your memorization skills; a good memory is extremely essential for every individual. We teach you languages, and there is no doubt that you will use them in your lives, especially in these times when the concept of “globalization” is so hot. We teach you sciences, because we want you to understand yourselves and what it is really like to live in this world, so that you will be more appreciative of your own lives.

We teach you arts because we want you to discover your talents that are likely to be very handy in your lives. So, you see, everything that we teach you is meant to push you forward, so that you can become more sophisticated individuals and respectable members of the society. Whether you use them in your lives or not, whatever we teach you is intended to help you serve yourselves in the best way possible. Now, let’s get back to our class…

Tomorrow, if you were asked by one of your students, “Will I ever use this in my life?” what would be your response? How would you convince your students that what they are learning in math at that very moment will be of use to them later on in life?