Chances are at some point in your educational career, you or one of your classmates has boldly raised a hand and asked, with maybe a tiny bit of attitude, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” Your teacher’s response probably fell into one of two generic buckets: 1. These skills are critical for your educational and professional career, or 2. You use math every day in the “real world.”
As a math teacher, I believe the best response does not fall into either of these categories. As such, I hope my thoughts here will provide you with the satisfactory response your recurring question deserves. But first, let’s do your teachers a little justice and quickly address how math is, yes, still necessary for your career and present in our daily lives.
Number crunching in the real-world
We all know, math builds on itself. Yesterday’s math is required for next week’s A+, and high school math is necessary to test into (or out of) college courses. Then, later on, you’ll put all these skills to use when you become an actuary, accountant, astronaut or architect. No? Not the job you’re after? Well, then check out these statistics*: the Journal of Labor Market Research found that 94% of all professionals use some sort of math in their jobs – 68% use fractions, decimals, and percentages; 29% use geometry and trigonometry; and 5% use calculus!
And, I do find that I use math almost every day out here in the “real world.” I use percentages when I’m shopping, fractions when I’m doubling a recipe, and multiplication or division on road trips. But other than the math you learned through middle school, I think it’s safe to say the everyday math skills stop there.
You likely won’t “ever use this.”
So do it. Ask me, “When will I ever use this?” again. Here’s my honest response:
It’s true. I said it.
Chances are, unless you’re one of the 5% quoted above, you’ve already mastered all the math skills you’ll need to be able to function without your iPhone calculator as an adult. Literal math skills are not what you will put to use every day in your adult life. Math transcends numbers and builds executive functioning skills that will set you apart as you move through college and into a career. These are the skills you’ll use Every. Single. Day.
Math provides us with the opportunity to use critical thinking skills and logic to reason through problems. Any time you’re greeted by a math problem you don’t automatically know how to solve, you use prior knowledge and learned skills to work through it. You’ll apply these same skills when you’re working on projects in teams, in the work place, and when your boss gives you an assignment you’ve never worked on before. This is something that your professor, and later on, your employer will value beyond any specific technical skill you possess.
Math also requires us to build endurance, perseverance and persistence – some of the skills most critical to success in work and in life. In math, when we don’t know how to solve a problem, we work through it no matter how long it takes. We apply different formulas and theorems until we arrive at what we know is the correct solution. This grit is what will set you apart from your peers. You want to be able to say that you are solutions-oriented and that you work tirelessly to arrive to an answer when faced with a challenge. And when you confidently claim this, you can thank math for fostering these qualities in you.
So there you have it. The most black-and-white subject has now become a vehicle for some of the most important intangible skills you’ll need throughout life. When will you ever use this trigonometry? Beyond mastering the material to get your next A, maybe never. You will, however, be able to attribute your work-ethic and tenacity to the time you spent reasoning through your math lessons. And, the next time you hear someone ask, “When will I ever use this?” hopefully you’re able to pass on this lesson in defense of the importance of math and all it has to offer.
*See? I’m using math to prove the value of math!
Annie Ericson is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at EPrep Woodland Hills in Cleveland.