Kids Think Math Is Useless and Irrelevant and That Isn’t the Main Problem Here
Parents think math is the subject in school most in need of an upgrade.
US adults think math class needs to become more useful and relevant to students.
It is true that the math students learn is often useless and irrelevant to their adult lives. Many students will conjugate radical expressions, simplify rational polynomials, and use the quadratic equation for the first and last time in math class.
In my view, this is not much of a problem and nowhere close to the main problem with math class.
It isn’t much of a problem because uselessness and irrelevance are baked into the project of general education itself, where we say, “We don’t know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life (and neither do you if we’re both being honest) so we’re going to teach you lots of knowledge, some of which you’ll keep and some of which you’ll one day replace with knowledge of your kids’ birthdays, the starting lineup of the 2022 Golden State Warriors, etc etc.”
This is, in my view, okay. This is part of the deal with most other school subjects, not just math. Consider the syllabus of an average literature class. Consider many of the detours and alleys of a world history class. Consider the categorization of life into species, genus, and phylum. Consider the word “phylum,” which until today I had not used since ninth grade!
Especially consider all of the trivial pursuits that deeply engage students. The games they play, the media they consume, very little of which has relevance or usefulness to their lives, especially professionally.
The main problem is not that kids find math class useless and irrelevant.
The main problem is that math class finds kids useless and irrelevant.
Again, kids like lots of things that have little usefulness and relevance to their lives. They generally do not complain about them in surveys. But those things, as a rule, think kids are useful and relevant, where by “kids” I mean their ideas, their latent skills, their ability to make sense of things, their opinions and intuitions, the languages they have and the languages they’re developing, the stuff they know and are.
Kids are uninterested in math class because they perceive that math class is uninterested in them.
In the classes kids like more than math, it is common for the class to wonder “what do you think here?” before helping the student understand “here is what experts think.”
It is common for literature class to wonder, “What do you think about what you are reading?” before sharing expert thinking.
It is common for world history class to wonder, “What do you think about these events?” before sharing expert analysis.
It is common for biology class to wonder, “How do you think these two animals are the same and different?” before sharing expert categorization.
In math class, this curiosity is extremely uncommon. Instead, students are told “here is what experts think” and asked, “do you think like this yet?” In math class we ask students, “If an arithmetic sequence a + bn describes the pattern 8, 14, 20, 26, … , what are a and b?”
One response here is to try to make this kind of math more useful and relevant to a group of students who vary enormously in what they find useful and relevant. Another is to ask, with deep and sincere interest, “What do you think is going on here? What numbers do you think might be coming up? What is a number you think we’ll never see? How could you predict numbers way out in the distance? Could you make your own pattern?”
Kids like learning in classes that like learning about them.