“When will I ever use this?” is possibly a maths teacher’s most feared student question. It conjures up all sorts of unpleasant feelings: anger that students don’t see the wonder of the maths itself, sadness that they’ve come to expect maths is only worthwhile if it’s usable for something, fear that if we don’t respond right the students will lose faith in us, shame that we don’t actually know any applications of the maths, but mostly just a rising anxiety that we have to come up with a response to it right now.
There’s an interesting discussion in this pdf article of the various responses that are commonly given to this question and their various drawbacks. The author is mainly concerned that we often inadvertently confirm the uselessness of maths by our very attempts to make it seem useful. While this is a legitimate concern, I have another one: in our attempts to justify the mathematics, we forget to listen to what the student actually needs.
In my experience, when a student asks this question, it’s a sign that they are starting to lose faith. They are having trouble motivating themselves and are seeking a reason to keep working at it. Being able to use it someday is the first thing they think of to motivate themselves, so they ask the question. But really most students will be happy with any reason that encourages them to stick at it today.
I had been thinking about this for a couple of days, after following a Twitter conversation and the comments on a post on Dan Meyer’s blog. Then one one of the students in the MLC actually asked the question, so I was all ready with my response. I said, “Actually, I’m not going to answer that question, but instead I have my own question to ask: how are you feeling about this topic right now?”
It is a testament to the trust I’ve built up with the students that he answered my question honestly! He said that he couldn’t see how the bits fit together or how they related to other things in the course. So I talked about how this topic fit in with the big ideas in maths, and how it connected with what they did last semester and last week. Then I helped him to organise some of the information in the topic so it was clearer how it was structured.
And you know what? After this discussion it didn’t matter so much that he might never use it. He had what he needed to have the courage to keep going, because I took the time to find out what was really bothering him.