The other day, I got a comment from a student saying, “Why do I even need this (math), I’m going to be a lawyer.” At that time I was caught off guard because, well, I was in the middle of a lesson. But mostly because I didn’t have a well developed argument on why math is important. Yes, I knew it’s in every aspect of our lives. Growing up, my math teachers always told me that math was useful for counting money, calculating sales, and for college. I never really bought it. And there I was, trying to sell my student the very reasons I never bought.
I don’t think she bought it either.
So over the weekend, I did some reflection (TFA would be so proud). Why is math important? Is it just about making sure you get the right amount of change back? There has to be more.
I started with the law thing. Googled “why math is important to be a laywer”. To my surprise, undergraduate math majors were the top scorers on the LSAT even compared to those who had majors relating to law such as political science. This led me to find that the step-by-step procedures in math (especially in algebra) cultivate the skills that lawyers need to be able to present their case in step-by-step manner. They need to be able to foresee the problems they may run into. They need to be able to justify their moves. They need to be able to rebut their rebuttals and use logic to win their case.
Math isn’t about counting numbers.
It’s like in the Karate Kids with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. There is a scene where Jackie Chan tells Little Dre to put on and take off his jacket, over and over again.
Was Jackie teaching him how to put on his jacket and take it back off? NO! He was teaching him the skills necessary to become successful in kung-fu (by the way, kung-fu and karate are completely different…)
That’s like math. Math isn’t just learning to add, subtract, multiply, divide. It’s so much more. In algebra, you have an equation to solve for the variable. You need to be able to plan out each step. Decide which numbers to combine, combine them correctly, and then which numbers to move to the other side. If you mess up one step, you’re going to end up with the wrong answer. As in life. You have a goal you set out for yourself. That is your final destination. In order to reach that goal, you need to have a step-by-step plan for yourself. If your equation or plan doesn’t follow through, you might head the wrong off the wrong direction and never reach your destination. As in math, if you subtract instead of add to the other side, you’ll have the wrong answer. But what’s cool about math is that it teaches you to go back into your equation and see which step you mess up on. Then you turn that negative into a positive and you learn from your mistake. That’s life. You go back into the equation of your life. See what part of your life you messed up on, learn and grow from it. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. It’s not about the final answer. It’s about the work you show. Because when you do math, you are cultivating the skills you need to be able to plan effectively. Math teaches you how foresee, avoid, and fix problems you may run into. It teaches you bigger picture items.
In Geometry, it’s all about taking something abstract, like a figure and translating it into a language that you do understand– something concrete and tangible, an equation that you can solve. In life, if you run across a difficult problem, something you do not quite understand, you are able to translate that situation into something where you can find the resolution to. Geometric proofs is all about using logic to justify a conclusion. In order to be persuasive in life, in order to win any sort of debate, you need to be able to back up what you want to prove.
Math isn’t about counting numbers. It isn’t about teaching you how to put a jacket on and how to take it off. It’s about the skills that you enforce while you do it. It’s about the skills that are transferable to life. If they are successful in doing math, I know they will be successful in their lives.
I finally explained this to them. And for the most part, they got it and took it in. They are like little sponges. I explained to them that this is why they need to practice. Because when they learn, they are storing things in their short term memory. The only way to convert that information into long-term is through practice. Of course there were those who were less mature (I was probably one of those kids) who just weren’t able to see the connection. But it just takes time. I’m hoping that if I constantly remind them, they’ll finally get it and see the greater picture.