“When are we ever going to use this?” It’s a question that has plagued math classes for years beyond count. The answer to the question depends largely on what is meant by, “this.” If it’s mathematics that is being referenced, then the answer is most likely to be never. If, however, “this,” is taken to mean step by step problem solving, then the answer is a resounding, every day.

Consider the following. Recently, I’ve been volunteering at an elementary school teaching algebra to fifth graders. The main problem that I’m seeing is not that they don’t understand the mathematics behind the problems. The problem is that that they haven’t yet learned to approach the problems with a systematic approach. When faced with a new problem, they stumble around with a guess and check approach until they find an answer that works.

Contrast that with an experience that I had the other day. My mother-in-law was talking about music time with her class. The students were gathered into small groups, given an assortment of bells, and told to figure out how to play Twinkle Twinkle. Immediately, I found myself thinking about how I would go about the task. I would start arranging the bells in order from lowest note to highest. What this experience taught me was that my undergraduate work had done its job. When faced with a new problem, I instinctively made a game plan before diving in.

That is what math is supposed to teach us. Math teaches us to solve problems in tried and true steps. If there aren’t yet steps that have been proven, math teaches us to think through and devise a game plan before we dive right in.

Consider the following. Recently, I’ve been volunteering at an elementary school teaching algebra to fifth graders. The main problem that I’m seeing is not that they don’t understand the mathematics behind the problems. The problem is that that they haven’t yet learned to approach the problems with a systematic approach. When faced with a new problem, they stumble around with a guess and check approach until they find an answer that works.

Contrast that with an experience that I had the other day. My mother-in-law was talking about music time with her class. The students were gathered into small groups, given an assortment of bells, and told to figure out how to play Twinkle Twinkle. Immediately, I found myself thinking about how I would go about the task. I would start arranging the bells in order from lowest note to highest. What this experience taught me was that my undergraduate work had done its job. When faced with a new problem, I instinctively made a game plan before diving in.

That is what math is supposed to teach us. Math teaches us to solve problems in tried and true steps. If there aren’t yet steps that have been proven, math teaches us to think through and devise a game plan before we dive right in.

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