When Will I Use This? Why Math Education Needs to Adapt to the Real World

Posted by Liz Dwyer

cosine
"When am I ever going to use this?"

Chances are you've asked a math teacher that question. Maybe the teacher told you about a few real-world applications of the law of cosines, but if you're not working as a mathematician or engineer, you probably haven't thought about it since you last closed your trigonometry book. On the other hand, your job very likely requires you to know how to analyze data and statistics, or do basic finance and accounting. An op-ed in The New York Times argues that math education must adapt to reflect the practical ways we actually use it to solve real-world problems.

Sol Garfunkel, executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications and David Mumford, emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown, argue that instead of teaching each student the same sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus courses, those should be replaced with practical, skills-based math classes in finance, data and basic engineering. "In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages," they offer as an example.

So does that mean students should be put on two different kinds of math education tracks—one for students that plan to enter STEM fields, and one for everyone else? Not necessarily; all students need to learn some of the more abstract mathematical concepts too. There needs to be a place for both "useable knowledge and abstract skills," the authors conclude.

If our math curricula actually creatively connected students to the "why" through project-based learning or teaching real-life applications (for example, using taxes to teach calculus), students would remember much more of what they learned in class. Everyone—including students who go on to become scientists, engineers and mathematicians—would gain a deeper understanding of how math applies to the world, while also being able to comprehend the federal budget. 

If we don't make the switch to grounding math in the real world, we're just setting ourselves up for another generation of students who will keep asking when they'll ever use what's being taught. With no concrete answer from their teachers, they'll keep tuning out of class.

photo  (cc) via Flickr user lexicon10055805