If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What Can You Do With Math?

What do you use math for in your everyday life?

As a teacher, my answer is: "to calculate percentages, lots and lots of percentages." I grade stuff, the student gets x out of a possible y, I write the resulting percentage at the top of the page, I take all those percentages and average them. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Eventually I add weight to some of those percentages with other percentages (20% homework, 25% tests, etc.), and calculate yet another percentage that gets (abracadabra) turned into a letter. That's about the extent of my math life, and I could have done that kind of math back in middle school. So what were all my advanced math studies good for? (I got as far as Statistics and Multi-variable Calculus in college before I hit my math wall.)

I have stated before that in putting together a school, we should be questioning the value of everything in the curriculum. Math strikes me as being in the unusual position of being both of unquestioned value (of course math provides the tools that our students need to succeed in the modern world) and of above average forgetableness (second only to foreign language in the "I haven't used that since high school" rankings).

For people who end up using math in their careers, it is an invaluable skill, highly in demand in the widest variety of fields, from science to engineering to business and beyond. My friends who studied math in college left school with the world at their fingertips, and have gone on to wildly successful careers. For those of us who use only a much simpler set of mathematical skills, the rest of what we learned has often atrophied and begun to fall away. So what does this mean for math education in high school? How do we balance the students who will need a strong math background with those who may never do anything more complicated than basic arithmetic? For me, the answer lies in the larger philosophy of what a high school education should accomplish.

When I was filling out my college applications, checking the boxes about what I might choose to study when I got there, I said I was going to major in economics (math would have been real useful there). By the time I had to declare a major at the end of my Sophomore year, I chose psychology (I hear they use statistics for that) without ever having stepped inside an econ classroom. Six months later, I was adding Spanish as a second major, and headed down the path that would lead me to teaching. I loved my Spanish classes in high school, but never would have guessed that my career would involve Spanish, and certainly not teaching it. My wife, who is currently pursuing a PhD in biology, only took honors biology in high school because her mom made her.

My point is that very few of us have any idea at sixteen or seventeen what our futures have in store for us. In this age of many career changes, this strikes me as even more true. The job of high school should be to prepare us for the widest variety of possibilities and to provide us with as many skills as possible. Later in life we can decide which ones to allow to fade away with disuse. So, kids, go out and practice those derivatives. You never know when you may need them.

Have you used math today?

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