“When are we ever going to use this in real life?” This question is a great indicator of a lack of joy and engagement in a classroom, and I am trying to shift my mindset about my response to this question. Rather than the typical eye roll and canned, “You need to be prepared for college!” or similar fabricated response, I now respond to that question with curiosity. When are you going to use this in real life? As math teachers bound by standardized everything, it is rarely an option for us to throw out content that students will likely not use ever again. But I think this question that has peeved us for so long is an important one, and it’s worth thinking about the answer and updating our practices to reflect reality as much as we can.
Bring in the pros! One of my personal teaching goals for a long time has been to open students’ eyes to how math is used in every profession. Traditional math education has become so decontextualized, which is really harming our kids. I’ve had three guests into my classroom this year, and you can literally see students’ eyes widening as they interact with these working professionals. Every guest that I’ve had in my classroom this year, including an executive at a major airline, an inventory manager for an aviation manufacturer, and a project manager for a construction company, reports back that they love visiting schools and seeing how engaged young people are. It’s incredible how much context – real context, not just a word problem with a fabricated situation – can engage and enlighten students. Context is everything!
How can we express to our kids in good faith, “Don’t worry about why you need to know this now, you’ll need it later,” when that either isn’t true, or if we don’t even know the possible applications of what we’re teaching – especially in higher math. When we can actually see how trigonometry is used in sloping the grade of a landscaping project to improve drainage (and why that’s important!), or how we can use logical reasoning and problem-solving skills to manage the schedules of hundreds of employees, we start to shed light upon answers to our favorite question, “When am I ever going to use this?”
My hope is that someday we can start replacing stale traditional lessons with more authentic experiences like these, but in the meantime, we can make room to invite professionals to join our classes. It’s really worth it! Local engineering, construction, technology, or trade firms very likely have a community outreach program. Check out your network, ask other teachers, family members, and friends to see how we can get more kids exposed to more math IRL. It’s high time we bring joy and engagement back to the math classroom, and be more intentional about opening our kids’ eyes to all the opportunities that await them.