“When will we use this in the real world?”

A question all secondary school math teachers have heard at some point in their career. Not the worst thing they’ve heard students say, but I’m sure it stings nonetheless.

At face value, it’s a fair enough question. Most students won’t find themselves in a situation where they need to use the minus b formula, or imaginary numbers, or integration (blasphemy, I know). In reality, a base knowledge of arithmetic and percentages are all most people need to survive in the big bad world (if they stay away from STEM careers). Knowing all this, I began to wonder why math is a core subject comparable to English, something everyone uses everyday. After much (some) pondering I came to the conclusion that math education is as much about teaching students logical thinking as it is about teaching them math.

English, Irish, and math are core subjects because they each give students important skills. English teaches us how to communicate effectively, reading comprehension, how to write. Irish teaches us another language, it is our culture, it improves our communication skills. Math is the only one of the three that instills logical problem solving skills. Solving problems is a crucial part of everyday life, and the teaching of math is a very convenient way to strengthen this ability. Dr Arlene Gallagher, the director of the Walton Club, has this to say about the subject:

Mathematics is all around us, yet many people’s perception and experience with this subject is to learn a set of steps ‘to get the right answer’. In teaching mathematics, if we reduce this subject to a set of procedures, we are missing out on critical opportunities to develop mathematical habits of mind and advanced cognitive skills that are highly transferrable and outlast any exam setting.”

Dr Gallagher brings up something which many teachers can be prone to do, that is the reduction of math to a set of procedures. Of course, to solve problems students must first develop the tools needed to so, but there must always be an emphasis on the greater-picture. The quickest way to bore students is by giving them a handful of abstract math problems that only require one skill! I’m a maths educator at the Walton Club, and in my lessons I always relate the mathematical concepts to real-world applications. My lessons are often structured such that a new concept is introduced, and then the students (known as alphas, after Ernest Walton’s Nobel prize winning experiment) apply that concept to solve a real-world problem. For example, a lesson on mean, median, mode, and expectation values began with example calculations of each. Then the alphas were tasked with determining which character has the best dice on Nintendo’s Super Mario Party for the Switch. The alphas had to figure out which tools to apply to the problem, all I showed them was how. I believe this is how maths should be thought, that way the students will never have to ask that question again.

Give a man a fish…