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The Math Teacher's least favorite question: "Why do I Need to Know This?" -Answered

I came across this question while applying to a teacher training program called EnCorps. I liked it so much I think I'll share it with you.

As a successful professional, how have you used math or science in your daily work? What would you say to a student who questioned whether math or science would be useful in their future? How will you communicate that with students in a classroom?

As the owner of a private math tutoring business, I use math in my work everyday - and not just in the ways you would expect. I use skills from Pre-Algebra to help my students calculate their grade percentages,, to determine how much a $60 lesson would be at 25% off, and to do my taxes. Algebra helps me show students how to calculate the scores they need on their upcoming tests to get the grade they want. The concepts of logic introduced in Geometry help me to reason my way through difficult problems both in mathematics and in my everyday life. Algebra 2 skills help me schedule my students efficiently, and estimate the likelihood that students will cancel lessons (and thus the amount of money I can expect to make). And I can maximize my profits, minimize my travel time between students’ houses, and check all of my students’ work more quickly using graph sketching skills from Calculus.That’s a lot of high school mathematics - and those are only the skills I use on a regular basis.

I like to answer the “will I ever use this” questions in two parts. I begin by explaining the reason students have trouble imagining using the new math they learn: an effect that I like to call the “wake of understanding.” We can’t comfortably apply a mathematical technique right after we learn it, but once we become more comfortable with the material and have more practice with the concepts, the topic’s “wake” passes by, leaving us with a clearer understanding of the topic, and the ability to apply it to a variety of real-world problems. The mathematics taught in k-12 education is actually extremely useful in everyday life, once a person is sufficiently comfortable with the material.

The second part of my answer to “why do I care” questions is that mathematics is essential to some of the most in-demand career fields. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, computer science, economics, and statistics are only a few of these well-paid and rewarding fields. If you ask a student about their career aspirations and their interests, one of their answers will almost certainly be related to one of those fields of study. Having students research a topic of their choice and how it relates to mathematics is a great way to show them that they can use high school math in their everyday lives all the time, if they choose to.


Carrie B.

Experienced Tutor with UCLA Math Degree and Master's of Education

900+ hours
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