Why math? Why do we do this? Oh, why?

“Why do I have to learn this?  When will I ever use this?”   — practically everybody at some point

This is a really good question.  In fact, I’d have to say that it’s probably one of the most important questions anybody could ask.  It seems to me, in fact, that it’s hard to justify our current system of forcing kids, with the full weight of the law behind us, to attend classes, if we can’t even say why we are doing it.

And don’t even get me started on testing.  If we are going to do as much testing as we currently are, we had really be certain we are both teaching and testing the right things. Tests are hard on students, and they take them away from classes where they might be learning other things.  They are also hard to make fair.  I’ve always had an easy time with tests, and it feels incredibly unfair that some of my brothers and sisters have a harder time with tests and get worse grades and fewer opportunities even though they also know the material well enough for the real world.

Eesh.  No wonder the question of how we teach math can make people so angry.  And because we can’t all teach our children ourselves, we have to turn it over to the school.  And because of that, we care deeply about how well the school’s live up to the job.  On the other hand, it feels like other people are always the ones creating the lessons and the ideas, and we don’t have any control.  This is especially true in math, where the way ideas are taught have changed so much over the past fifty years or so.

So what is driving the importance of math education?  Why are we fighting so hard over what is going to be taught?  What is the point of all of this?  Until we can answer this question, it’s going to be very hard to get everybody working together on this important problem.

There are lots of answers to this question.  Sadly, not everybody really agrees.  It does’t take long to discover that when you go looking.  Here are at least some of the ideas I’ve seen:

  1. Learning math gets you a better job
  2. We need more people trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in order to compete in today’s world
  3. People need better math skills just to stay afloat in today’s world
  4. Learning math teaches you how to think
  5. Math is an art like music or painting; it makes us human
  6. Math is the ultimate form of Beauty and Truth


Each of these ideas is a very big idea on their own!  They are far too big for this single blog post, in fact.  So for the next few posts, I’m going to be covering them each of them more closely, trying to discover why people think that way and how well this matches with what happens in the real world.  If I have any ideas that I’ve missed or comments on this, please let me know!


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