When Will We Ever Use This?

If you read my post IDK How to Learn This, you probably realized that I'm behind in the game as always. If you didn't read it, here's a summary: I don't know how math relates to real life.

After catching up on seven months of unread blogs, I find that Dan Meyer has already blogged about this. In depth. Multiple times.

In a way better visual of what I'm feeling, he posts about the popular infographic poster and why it never works.

In his Public Relations post, I loved this featured comment from Kathy Sierra:
"But another approach — since you used the word “enjoy” — is to simply consider math as an opportunity for puzzle-solving in interesting ways. After all, there is virtually NOTHING “personally relevant” in many of the games and pursuits people find so compelling, like, for example, Sudoku. Even chess. Or Angry Birds. Whether math is useful/relevant RIGHT NOW is a worthy and challenging goal."
 And to quote an article he linked to by Samuel Otten:
"I too believe in the value of building on students’ experiences, but rather than look for experience in the form of mathematical content appearing in their everyday lives, I look for experience in the form of mathematical thought processes—such as classifying, identifying patterns, and generalizing—and, most important, a desire to solve problems and make sense of the world."
I then took to Twitter with my complaints and lonely fit of rage. No one's responses were satisfying my need for a 'real-life' answer and so I sullenly accepted their responses with a doubtful 'I guess'. And then...IN SWOOPS...the calming voice of reason, aka @jackieb. She questioned me on why I first chose to teach math.

The short answer is that everything else seemed boring. The long answer is that my best subject was English but I couldn't bear the idea of teaching grammar and listening to students stuttering through reading aloud for the remainder of my days. I suck at science and history. Art was fun but I didn't have much skill to back it up. So that left me with math. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I like organizing and ordering things, figuring out puzzles, observing patterns, solving problems, and in general, making things work better. Plus, math is interactive; I would always be doing something.

When I said this to Jackie (in <140 characters) she calmly responded with:
Those sound like great "likes" for your students to like too. They may never "use" Alg2, but they'll use problem solving. Can you try to develop that sense of wanting to try to figure things out in your students?
Oh, Jackie. You make it all sound so simple.

Something else she said struck a chord with me after my post on raising expectations:
I can't always relate things to real life. In precalc I tell them that I don't know if they'll ever use this, but that I don't know what they'll be doing in 10 years. I then tell them I don't want them to not have choices open to them because they can't do math. Then we talk about the value of learning just for the sake of learning, the challenge of being able to solve tough problems,task perseverance, ... , then they get tired of me talking so much, so we get back to solving problems. 
How can I expect my students to be better if I don't give them the tools to do it with? I am subconsciously (or consciously I suppose) saying, "You won't ever need these skills because I don't believe you can ever become an engineer, mathematician, programmer, etc."  I'm doing the exact opposite of what I intend. Not that that's ever happened to you of course.

So now I am thinking...how can I lead my content, my class, my lessons around the fact that everyone loves a puzzle/pattern/mystery? How can I lead with what I enjoy so that my joy spills over into my students and their thinking and their actions?

Is there a pattern (very punny!) I can create so that our daily math experiences revolve around figuring out a pattern, solving a problem, mastering a puzzle?

Can I train students to think of life in terms of:

  • What do I know?
  • What pattern do I see?
  • What do I predict happens next?
  • How will changing the pattern affect the ending?
  • Can I change the pattern to create a different ending?
  • What patterns can I create to achieve the ending I want?

Hey, that kind of sounds like we're reading a story. Or avoiding bad relationships. Or being a better friend. Or breaking a bad habit.

And that sounds a lot more like real life than using systems of equations to decide which cell phone plan is better.

That's a puzzle I can solve.

Here is a start.


  1. Sounds exciting. :o) I'd be interested in seeing how this goes. I'm sure you'll keep us posted!

  2. I'm so glad you've found some hope. When I'm problem solving with little kids, I teach them that just because they have a hammer, not everything is a nail. So, when we find something we have to solve (and the content area really doesn't matter here), we look in our toolboxes for the right tool. If we don't find one that will work, we know we have to learn something new in order to solve our problem. It's exciting to know we're going to learn something new!

    This is similar to asking a simple essential question for the day, but little kids don't care about today's essential question. They want to know if it's really true that all squares are rectangles, or that pill bugs roll up and sow bugs don't, or...you get the idea. *I* have a question in mind to start with, but we often learn more along the way when we're figuring out how to find the answers by looking in our toolboxes.

    I know that doesn't help you with older kids, but maybe you can generate that excitement for learning a new tool some other way.