A student comes up to you and says "why do we have to learn this?" (where "this" really means mathematics that goes beyond counting change or calculating a tip). How do you respond? (This prompt was inspired by Steve Grossman's week one post.) (Alterna-question: You are having a parent-teacher conference and the father says "Well I was never really good at math either..." when talking about his child. How do you respond?)
I can't even count how many times a week I hear "why do we have to learn this?" or "where do you use this is real life?" I had a real moment of clarity one day last year when a student asked me one of these two questions and we actually had a REALLY GREAT class discussion about the value of math and how they will be using, if not mathematical concepts then mathematical/logical/rational thinking in their lives. This was the moment when I actually realized that I could see how math is all around us, and how it is used everywhere, but that my students didn't see that and needed to be shown/taught.
Now, I don't mean needed to be shown like the corny math problems in text books that force "real-life" application on so many mathematical concepts (I can't be the only one that feels a lot of "real-world" problems in textbooks feel very contrived...right?). I mean really shown in a way they are going to believe and going to accept. I mean I'm a math teacher and I enjoy math, but even I think problems like this one below just aren't cutting it for the kids. I mean seriously...who cares what the angles in a stone are?
My new response to the question "why do we need to learn this?" is that people won't necessarily use every (or any) mathematical concepts later on in their lives or careers, but that EVERYONE needs to know and be skilled in problem solving. I explain to my students that by learning different parts of math they are
teaching their brains how to think in a certain way and practicing that skill. It doesn't matter what type of job you have or what is going on in your life...problems arise and you have to be adept at finding solutions to those problems.
Also, new this year (because of all of the wonderful ideas I have gotten through twitter and other math bloggers) I am moving toward more group work and more collaboration between students. When I was talking to my new students about why we would be doing a lot of group work and why I thought it was important, I explained to them that in the real world when you have a problem usually you aren't isolated trying to solve that problem and I want to recreate that environment in my classroom.
Now the second half of this prompt is something I feel VERY passionately about. When I hear parents (grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, OTHER TEACHERS!!!) tell a student that it is ok they aren't good at math because they weren't either I want to scream! This is so detrimental to a child's thinking and does nothing but allow the student to believe they will never be successful and therefore they give up. I mean seriously, if there was something you were told you would never be good at and would never understand how much effort would you put in? Also, this comment usually comes from a trusted adult, so the child is likely to accept this as fact.
I VERY much believe that ANYONE is capable of understanding math, so much so that I did an entire "action research" project on it for my Masters. Obviously math is going to come more easily to some people than to others, but I still believe that it is possible for everyone to understand.
Another thing that I just do not understand is why we have this cultural acceptance of some people not understanding math. It isn't ok or acceptable to be illiterate, but for some reason people have no problem telling all sorts of people how they aren't literate in math. Like...what?? It seriously just boggles my mind.
As for my response to Mr. "Well I was never really good at math either" I would (and have) explained my thinking about success in math and ask for his support in helping his child be more successful in math. I would also share a personal story about how both my mother and father were not strong math students, but that my stepmother was a math major in college and how just having that one positive influence regard math I was able to be successful and enjoy it. I think I would also point out that there isn't some special gene that makes you good at math or not so it isn't hereditary :)
On a random side note, my brother left for college at couple weeks ago (awww he's all grown up...I remember when he was born!) and my dad, stepmom and sister brought him up to school.This is a picture of them on the front page of the school website...my poor brother is the one hidden behind the text that reads "An Inspiring Welcome to the Class of 2016" and he is the one that is PART of the class of 2016. Everyone kept thinking my sister was starting school, but she's only a junior in high school. This was just what I needed to give me a chuckle during a stressful first week back!