Answering “The Question”


For week 3 of the new math blogger initiation, I decided to write about what I’ll say to students who want to know “When am I ever going to use this?”  So, I’ve been thinking about it a bunch.  I have some standard answers that I normally fall back on, my favorite goes something like this:

Math is all around us, it describes the way the universe works (and so on and so forth until I can bring the conversation back to the topic at hand). 

But the other day, I had a new thought while watching some campaign coverage.  Whoever the talking head on the screen was, they were asking the question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  This made me think, “According to what?”  I believe many people will try to answer this question with some sort of number.  Do I make more money than I did?  Is the national debt higher than it was?  What about the unemployment rate?  So, it turns out that people may be basing their voting decision on math (whether they know it or not, or whether they understand the math or not).  Taking that one step further, I jotted this down:

Yeah, totally! Everyone makes decisions all the time.  A lot of these decisions are based on rules and logic just like math, so learning math should make you a better decision maker.   A lot of these decisions also require you to make predictions (who’ll be the better president for instance), also something math can help you with.

Then I go to write my post today, and I check the prompt again.  It says “This prompt was inspired by Steve Grossberg’s week one post.”  So I go to check out his post (you should too) and it turns out his answer has to do with making decisions too.  D’oh! I guess there’s no need for me to write my post now.  Except that it’s probably the case that every post I write this year will have already been written somewhere else (except the crazy specific ones, but probably those too).  So I press on.

Mr. Grossberg’s answer focused on relationships, which is awesome because I wasn’t even thinking that.  I like how he explains “You want to separate yourself out from everyone else but without affecting any of your relationships.”  That concept seems very easy for students to grasp.  They can immediately think of how relationships affect their decisions and vice versa.  I definitely plan to add this to my bank of answers to The Question.

But I also like that my first thought wasn’t relationships, it was predictions.  I think students intuitively get predictions too.  They can see why it might be useful to make a prediction about which shoes will be more comfortable or even which candidate will make a better president.  Then, the connection back to math is super easy.  In my first attempt at a “3 act” task, I asked students to make predictions about the number of apples in a truck.  They had no trouble making guesses, then we did some math and refined our guesses.  Then I asked “why did we do this?” (Ha! take that kids, preemptive  strike!) They had plenty of answers ready.  They said, “the people buying the apples need to know how many there are” and “the truck driver needs to know the weight” and “the farmers need to know how much they picked.”  They answered The Question themselves that day.  Maybe I’ll remind them next time they ask it.


9 thoughts on “Answering “The Question”

  1. Hey, Matt, thanks for the shout-out! I know exactly how you feel about never being able to post anything original. How much of what we do did we *not* beg, borrow, or steal from someone else?

    Still, it’s cool that we were partly on the same wavelength, but not exactly. Prediction is a big deal, obviously. I’ll add that to *my* toolbox for answering The Question.

    If you want to change my name to “Grossberg” in your post, I’d be obliged. I’m already on Sam’s case about that. 😉

  2. sweatingforit

    This totally applies to Latin as well. Kids ask me why learning Latin was important, and aside from all the obvious answers, I think learning Latin helps you pay close attention to details. It doesn’t seem related at all but it completely is.

  3. This reminds me of a quote from the show Numbers, that a student found and brought in a few years back: “We all use math everyday: to predict weather, to tell time, to handle money. Math is more than formulas or equations; it’s logic, it’s rationality, it’s using your mind to solve the biggest mysteries we know.”

  4. Great post. That’s why I personally think that math classes should collectively move towards a bigger emphasis on statistics, data and probability! It’s more practical for me. Easier for kids to see the relevance of mathematics. Anywho! I like the Numbers emphasis on solving mysteries and your response of math equipping folks to be better decision makers. Puts things in perspective.

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