Today I saw this delightful little picture of a popular Tweet:

Oh how witty. This sort of thinking echoes a lot of people’s thoughts about math education in schools. Many students, teachers and parents fail to see the usefulness of learning math skills if the student is not going to be an engineer, scientist or go into another math related field. Why should we learn how to find the area of triangle instead of learning “real” skills like raising a family and getting a job?

The truth is that most students may never really need to know how to find the area of a triangle. But no matter what field you will go into, you will have to learn how to think logically and solve problems. This is what math teaches students. Math problems give students a variety of conditions and forces them to think through a logical problem solving method to reach a desired outcome. Every job in the world requires their employees to think logically and solve problems.

A great analogy for this is weight lifting. Everybody understands the benefits of weight lifting. But if we use the same assumptions that the above Tweet makes, weight lifting is completely useless. Take bench pressing for an example. In the real world, how often will a weight trainer need to lay down on a bench and push heavy objects off of his chest 20 times and then repeat the same process for a few repetitions? Probably never. Outside of the weight room, that exact sequence of actions will never be needed.

So why do we weight train? Because later on, the muscles that we developed will be useful in the real world outside of the weight room. We have trained, so those muscles are already in place and we are able to meet whatever physical task is in front of us. In the same way, we develop the problem solving skills in math classes that will help us throughout our lives. Yes, you may never be asked to compute the area of a triangle, but you will be asked to solve problems.

But maybe that is a little too abstract. Here is a story that one of my physics teachers told me about a time when math knowledge saved the life of his son.

While his wife was pregnant, the doctors were carefully monitoring the levels of the hormone hCG in her body. In order for a pregnancy to be viable, the levels of hCG has to double after a certain period. On one visit, the doctors informed my teacher’s wife that the hormone levels were lower then expected. The pregnancy was no longer viable and they would have to surgically remove the pregnancy to save my teacher’s wife’s life.

However, my physics teacher saw a problem. He did a quick mental calculation using the percent change formula and found that somehow the doctors had made an error. The percent change formula is really simple. Here it is:

My teacher showed the doctor the error but the doctor did not believe him. However, within a week, the little baby fetus had a heartbeat. The baby was born and is now a healthy three-year old boy.

Good thing my teacher knew some math. He was able to save the life of his little boy.

Well said….math truly does tech how to start with given information and work your way to a solution. Just like in real life, every step of a math problem must be logical, make sense, and can be justified. Employers want to see all of these skills.

I mostly agree with these sentiments. However, I think the curriculum used in today’s schools does not really reflect true problem solving, nor does it allow for true logical thinking, and I think a lot of mathematicians/math educators would agree with me. Math as presented in elementary and secondary schools is tedious, and none of the inherent beauty is shown. Math taught for math’s own sake is a foreign concept, and the subtility of argument deployed is often ignored.

Just as an FYI, I was a math educator and I kindly don’t agree with you. Go talk to an employer or business(and I mean a career job not a fast food job) in the “real world” and ask them what skills they want in an employee….you will find that much of what they tell you were skills developed in a math class. Also, even if math is tedious, all I can tell you is: Welcome to the real world! I am 24 years into a profession that I enjoy and there have many days where what I did on a daily basis was tedious at best…again, another skill I learned in a math class:)

Mathematician here! Unfortunately, to really appreciate the beauty of the subject, it’s really important to have a grasp of those tedious, seemingly trivial details that require rote memorization until you reach a point where you have enough background to fully understand or appreciate a concept, and it’s not easy to make them seem relevant or fun to children/teens who would rather be doing something else that provides them instant gratification. (Phew!) Basically, you’re accumulating tools and techniques to use for actual problem solving later on, beyond intro level calculus even, which unfortunately, most people never make it past because of said boredom. It’s totally a catch-22.