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Friday, February 01, 2008

When am I ever going to use this stuff?

I know, I’ve written about this topic before, but it bears further consideration. Too often I hear the question, “When will I ever use this stuff?” This is a common question in Weston, and surely elsewhere as well.

Sometimes the question comes from a bored student who is really asking a deeper question, something like, “I don’t like this, I don’t understand this, why should I have to learn it?” In that case it’s hard to know whether to answer the explicit question or the implicit question.

But sometimes the question comes from an otherwise engaged student who actually wants an answer. And it’s hard to give a satisfactory answer. There are at least two reasons for this — probably more. First of all, no high-school student really knows what he or she is going to be doing in life. It’s important to keep the doors open, in case the unanticipated economics course in college or statistical analysis in a job turns out to require something from a high-school math course. But that’s pretty vague and abstract, and of course it isn’t a very satisfactory answer for most students, even though it’s a true answer.

The other reason why the question is hard to answer is that the hidden but more important curriculum in high school has nothing to do with the specifics of logarithms, cosines, etc. When a student takes Algebra II or Precalculus or whatever, the important things that s/he is learning have to do with problem solving, approaches to mathematics, and learning itself. Sure, you might never see logs again (although the odds are that you actually will); but the analytic techniques and reasoning methods that you learn will stand you in good stead.

The only trouble is that most Weston students don’t want to hear this, or it doesn’t make sense to them. They want to know how they are going to use the precise content in the job that they imagine that they will have, even though the probability is that they will be doing something else entirely. How do we give them an answer that they will consider satisfactory?

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