“When will we use this in real life?” How to talk to students about why we learn maths!

It’s the sentence every math tutor is tired of hearing, and one which students never tire of asking; “When will we use this in real life”. Although we might sometimes think (with perhaps some justification!) that this is a time-wasting technique, it’s actually very important for students to know why we learn maths. Otherwise, why would they be motivated to do so? Here are some tips for dealing with the question when it inevitably arrives.

Set aside time

The first time a student in a new class asks this question I always tell them I’m happy to answer this question, but not while we’re in the middle of something else. It’s helpful to set aside a slot for this: tell students you’re going to stop work 15 minutes early so we can answer this properly. The aim is to address this question well once so you don’t need to spend time answering it again and again in the future.

Involve students

A great technique for any awkward student question is to throw it back to the class. Why do they think we learn maths? Students may have great ideas of their own or may find that they’ve never really thought about this – either way, it’s a great starting point for a discussion, and gets students engaged in the ideas and buys you some time to organise your thoughts if needed.

Be honest

Much of the content which we have to cover in maths actually isn’t going to be that useful to students. Don’t try and pretend that every student in the class is going to factorise quadratics in their job or try to shoehorn some obscure application of reciprocal graphs into the conversation. It’s okay to admit that not every single topic will end up being useful for every single student.

Emphasise problem-solving skills

However, maths is, of course, a lot more than just a set of abstract and unrelated rules. To learn maths well is really to learn how to think logically and creatively to solve problems. That’s something which is useful in almost every walk of life. Make sure you back this up by including plenty of opportunities for students to engage in problem-solving in your class.

Don’t focus overly on exams

Yes, students need to sit exams and want to get good grades, and this can, of course, be motivating for some students, particularly in the later years. However, focusing only on exams can encourage shallow learning of maths, and only shifts the blame – we’re learning maths because those higher up say so instead of just because I say so.

Emphasise learning to learn

Of course, we could (and should!) improve the content of the maths curriculum to make it more relevant. There is however a difficulty we have to grapple with here: what is relevant today may not be tomorrow. The roles students will play in the future, and the skills they need for this may not even have been invented yet. The best thing we can do for young learners, therefore, is to make sure they learn to learn really well – those skills will help them more than anything else.

There’s no need to let the “real life” question haunt you in maths lessons forever after – by tackling it head-on, you can get your classroom time back and even improve your student's motivation and engagement.

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