My first two days of prac teaching last week included three mathematics classes. In two of the classes I heard students ask the teacher, “Sir, when are we going to use this? Why are we studying it?”. The other mathematics class was grade 12, obviously they benefited from their longer experience and were more pragmatic when they asked, “Will this be on the test?”. Since that time I’ve been wondering how I might answer this question when it is asked of me.
What follows are some initial ideas for how I might respond. Somewhat phrased as how I might use it with students. Thoughts? Suggestions?
The “icing on top”/”math as a badge of honour” response
Do you find mathematics difficult? How many other people do you know that find mathematics difficult? What is a potential employer going to think when they see a *insert top grade here* (VHA/A/7 etc) for mathematics on your report card? Showing an ability to engage with a subject that people find challenging will say something about your nature, something an employer may like.
The “it’s important to industry” response
Especially given recent noises made by the Australian Skills Council about the limited numeracy skills of potential employees for trades and professional jobs. Which includes statistics like “53% of working age Australians have difficulty with numeracy skills”. And looks at reports on the maths skills of starting bricklaying apprentices
- 75% couldn’t do addition with decimals or subtraction requiring “borrowings”.
- 80% couldn’t calculate the area of a rectangle.
The “turnaround” response: tell me what you will be doing
It’s a bit hard to explain what you might use this mathematics for when I don’t know what you might do in the future. What do you want to do when you leave school?
At this stage I’m thinking of an exercise where the students write their future career plans on a post-it and stick it to their forehead. And then for me to do it with what I was thinking at 15 and what has happened since. i.e. 3 changes before I left high school, a completely different outcome after Uni, and two more career changes since then.
Then show a bit of the Did You Know video that mentions various trends like numerous common jobs didn’t exist 6 years ago, and that a new worker today will have on average 14 different jobs.
Now, are you sure that is the only thing you’ll be doing?
So, while we may not know all that much about what you’re going to do, we do know that mathematics underpins and is needed by many new jobs. (e.g. the XKCD cartoon on purity).
The “how I have used it” response.
In the end, I can show you how I’ve used mathematics in my life. Which is what I’ll aim to do in most of my lessons. Failing that, I’ll aim to use interesting examples, exercises and activities around mathematics concepts that other people have used.