Why Learn Math?

Why learn math?

Why is math important?
When am I going to use math in real life?
What does math have to do with anything?

As all math teachers know, we hear these questions on the daily. For one, we teach what we teach because the state and federal government tell us what we have to teach. So, there's that. But other than that, what are the real life answers to this question?
I wanted to post some excerpts from a forum that answered this question and get some responses from others.

Since football is big here, I use this analogy: You lift weights, don't you? (or, "Your brother lifts weights...") Why, because you want to be a weight lifter when you grow up? No! You lift weights to build muscles that you will use for other things: playing football, impressing your girlfriend... well, math is like building mental muscles that you will use for other things. You're building little neuron connections in your brain that you will need later, to learn things you really like. Weightlifting and math don't have to be fun, but they will take you where you want to go!"

Algebra, and much of math, is the study of problem solving. It teaches you to organize information and apply a step by step process to solve the problem you've been presented with.

Basically, learning math teaches a person how to think logically and abstractly. It trains your brain to notice details, to be logical, to make sure you have reasons for each step of your plans. These skills are critical for a person to be able to navigate our world, to be an informed citizen, to make decisions your whole life. I talked to them about people who get taken in by scams because they don't recognize when arguments don't make sense.

Algebra is just solving for unknowns -- which we do all the time, but most people don't write it down. When we figure out how much money we need to pay bills -- algebra. When we need to figure out what the loan payments will be for that new car or the house -- algebra...What they learn in school is just the formalized way of writing it down to show someone else, and/or the abstract version of it. It all applies, though.

Doctor Achilles, The Math Forum The idea here is that if you learn math now, then when you're confronted with math later in life, you won't have to worry about it at all and instead you can just pay attention to what you want to.Jen Peck, Karen Rosser, and Carol Pifer, Math and Education students at the University of Richmond, have put together a series of Web pages called "What Good is Math?" talking about the connections between mathematics and art, calculating grades, cooking, shopping, sports, and travel:

Art and Math: How Are They Related?
How Did I Get a C in Spanish?
How Do I Get the Most For My Shopping Dollar?
Mathletics! or Is There Math in Sports?
So You're Planning a Party?
So You're Planning a Trip?
Will I Ever Be Able to Fill My Piggy Bank?

How can math be so universal? First, human beings didn't invent math concepts; we discovered them. Also, the language of math is numbers, not English or German or Russian[...]

Why is this question asked now more than ever? In older days, students didn't ask why they asked how. Not why do I have to learn this but how do I learn it?

Teachers: how do you answer this question? Even if you don't teach math, how do you convince your students that your class work is important and has purpose?


  1. I love the Saint-Exupery quote:
    "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

    With students I try to get them to imagine an outcome first. This is what I like about the links you've put up there - they all give students an image of something they want to do. This then motivates students to learn things that will help them get towards it.

  2. I don't teach math (or anything at all really), but when my friend ask me why I love math so much I tell them a ton of reasons, but the one that gets the most attention is shopping. Do you know how hard it is for someone who can't do math to figure out how much something is on sale for? Or tax? I know it sounds silly, but for someone who has no interest in math whatsoever, it may swing them over.

  3. Hi there! I just sent you an email RE: the 20SB badge, figured it'd be easier than trying to explain via comment! Hope it works!