# Are We There Yet?

Having just spent some time traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded of some long road trips taken during my childhood. My siblings and I took turns asking the eternal question “Are we there yet?” sometimes as often as every five minutes. No matter how far it was to our destination, my father would eventually answer “Ask me again when it’s dark,” an understandable attempt at getting us to stop asking.

I can’t remember if it worked, but after spending several years in mathematics classrooms, I definitely have a better understanding of how he was feeling. It seemed like every time I introduced a new concept to a class, another student would echo “When am I ever going to use this?”

Students asked this question, especially when the concept was challenging, almost as often as we asked my dad if we had arrived at grandma’s house yet. In the absence of convincing real-world contexts in the curriculum, I was tempted to come up with a pat answer to avoid the question. But I really didn’t want to disregard the question entirely and imply that it was unimportant, so I came up with various answers, ranging from specific applications to general mental training:

“You use percents to find out how much a sale item costs, or how much interest you will have to pay on a car or house loan.”

“At some point you will get a paycheck and you’ll want to know if your boss is treating you fairly, or if someone made a mistake and didn’t pay you enough.”

“You won’t use it directly, but it will develop your reasoning skills and the logical part of your brain that helps you form arguments, which are valuable in many aspects of life.”

In one of my  pre-algebra classes, students asked this question so often that I brought in a police officer, a nurse, and someone who worked in a bank to describe and demonstrate ways they use math in their jobs. Then I had students write a short essay about another way in which the math they were learning could be used in a specific profession (to cries of “Miss Van Vliet, this is math class! Why do we have to write an essay?!” . . . but that is a subject for another day).

I often got tired of telling students when they were going to use math, because I felt there had to be a way to answer their questions that would more readily engage them.

Offering examples was helpful, and percents led to the most readily accessible examples. Since students are often in stores spending their allowance or hard-earned cash, they understand why they need to know how sale prices and taxes work. After all, they wouldn’t want to come up short at the register.

Yet offering examples and even bringing in career professionals often did not have the level of impact I needed to convince my students that I wasn’t just making the answer up. I needed my students to experience the mathematics in a different context. But how?

From my experience, students more readily understand a concept when problems are embedded in a real context rather than working with an artificial set of data points. Take data and statistics, for instance. I sometimes wonder if it would be better to study statistics in conjunction with a science or history class, tying it to the other subjects they are studying. After all, students often collect and analyze data when conducting experiments, and in many history classes they are asked to evaluate data collected over certain years or populations.

Yes, yes, I know. . .That requires extra work and collaboration with other teachers; and with the curriculum laid out in different disciplines, not all teachers are teaching the same concepts at the same time.

In an ideal world, subject matter wouldn’t be so divided, curriculum in general would be interrelated, and applications of a concept would be apparent by the context in which it is presented. Then the answer to “When am I going to use this?” would be clear and thus no longer necessary.

So, I ask again. . .“Are we there yet?

Jocelyn Van Vliet no longer works with Key Curriculum Press. Her posts and biography have been preserved for the archives. For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in education. When I was in elementary school I went to school two to three weeks early and helped teachers get ready for the school year to begin. In high school I taught piano lessons. After graduating from college with a BA in Secondary Mathematics Education I taught courses ranging from prealgebra to AP calculus for six years in a small private school. As a teacher, I truly enjoyed interacting with students and looked forward to those moments when a struggling student truly "got it." For the past two years, I have worked for Key Curriculum Press as a development editor, having the opportunity to work with authors and colleagues on textbooks, technology, and professional development. I also serve on the board of a non-profit organization called Cantare Con Vivo, which brings music programs into several public schools in Oakland at no cost to the families.
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### 2 Responses to Are We There Yet?

1. Jim Bruce says:

I like your parallel with the open road. A long empty road really begs the question. When will this all add up? Especially for those in the back seat are living more for the moments they can steer, than for any given end.

As a father, one of the drivers, I wonder.

Maybe a math lesson doesn’t need all students to take the same path and maybe there are many destinations that represent the same positive result.

What if kids could come up with their own math destinations, i.e. what real world example do they want to solve?
Are there discoveries of the road students might want to share if they were driving?
Might they have experiences that would help mark their progress down the road.

With that thought the question comes to me, how about a math road trip with the kids driving?