Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cornered by the Real World: A Defense of Mathematics

Otten, S. (2011). Cornered by the real world: a defense of mathematics. Mathematics Teacher, 105(1), 20-25.

This article is an interesting look at the reasons why students so often ask "When will I ever use this?" in their math class. It mostly outlines possible responses with the benefits and consequences of using each response. I discuss each major section below with a quote to highlight the main idea of that section of the article:

1. Citing a real-world example - "even if the example very much resembles real life, people may be unlikely to solve the problem in 'school mathematics' fashion." (21)
2. Citing a profession - Imagine that you tell your students that this piece of mathematics is particularly useful in nursing and engineering. "Now, further imagine that you are headed toward a career in…anything other than nursing and engineering - the teacher's response has essentially given you a reason to be disengaged." (22)
3. Citing a future math class - "a student who is not engaged in the current mathematical activity is unlikely to change his or her outlook as a result of an appeal to further unexciting mathematics down the road." (23)

The author goes on to offer his own solutions about how to address the question, "When will I ever use this." Even though he acknowledges that there is no 'right' answer to this question, he suggests emphasizing "the mathematical processes that are occurring rather than the immediate content. The thought processes that characterize mathematics—problem solving, reasoning, justifying, representing, working in deductive systems, to name a few—are unavoidably useful in many aspects of life."

The article makes some good points, most of which are not new to anyone who has thought about the purpose of teaching and learning mathematics. Overall, the article felt more like an editorial piece than a research article. I would have been curious to learn about student perceptions in regards to the various responses discussed. I also would have been curious to know under which circumstances this question was most asked by students. There was little research to back up any statements being made. Mostly opinions.

I am really fascinated by how students perceive the meaning and value of the activities and topics in their math class. "When will I ever use this" is a question that math teachers have been getting for ages. Something about the subject or the way that it is taught must be causing them to view mathematics as pointless. I have seen students completely engaged in a task that has nothing to do with any real world connection. I have also seen students completely disengaged in tasks that are strongly connected to the real world. So, if it isn't the real world applicability, then what is it? We need to find this and use it to redesign our activities, our schools, our standards, and our approach.

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