My students say it all the time. “This isn’t math class, why do we have to do math, especially word problems?” It’s frustrating. Math is all around us. “Life is a series of word problems,” I tell them.
In high school we often concentrate on higher mathematics, and I’m not criticizing that at all. However, it pains me when I try to teach simple algebra and geometry and some of the students give up. They have no confidence in their math skills. Maybe it’s the calculator generation.
Even something as simple as figuring percentages can be problematic, and for students having experience with calculus no less. The problem is they know how to solve the equations. They often don’t know how to set them up.
Wading through information to write the equation can be confusing, but experience makes it easy. In the real world solving problems is a daily occurrence. Often it involves math.
There are no jobs where you get a piece of paper with equations for you to solve. However, many jobs require algebra almost every day. We must calculate supplies and costs among other things.
Sometimes kids say if they owned a business they would hire someone to figure that stuff out. That inevitably leads us to a discussion on trusting others with our money without any means of verification. That doesn’t sound too shrewd to me.
I’m sure every farmer worth his salt knows how much each acre costs to plant, fertilize, control pests, harvest and market. They also know what their yields and crop prices must be to turn a profit. To be successful they’d better. I bet they all have a pretty good idea how to calculate how big an acre is too. Carpenters can use algebra and geometry to make their buildings square too. The Pythagorean Theorem is useful in everyday life as is knowing that if opposite diagonals are the same length then the corners must be square.
Medical people know how to calculate dosages of various drugs based on recommended rates and patient size. It becomes second nature pretty fast. We all may not be doctors, but we can save money at the grocery store if we can extrapolate prices per unit value. Math isn’t just for professionals.
I guess the crux of the problem lies in getting kids to like math. That sounds difficult, but it shouldn’t be. Developing confidence through success is a formula for liking anything. If you become good at something you generally like it. If you struggle at it you usually don’t.
Too many times when we teach things we never revisit them enough, or at least that’s my theory. Some skills are honed over time. Even veteran major league baseball players continue to practice fielding ground balls. It improves their confidence and confidence is critical for success.
I admit I’ve forgotten my calculus. I’m a little rusty on trigonometry too, but I’m proficient in the math I use every day. I also enjoy being able to solve problems. I like to filter through information, figure out what is pertinent and come to a conclusion. I wish I could get all of my students into that mindset. Parents, we need your help too. Help us challenge the kids. Don’t let them settle.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).