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Math is useless July 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in math, physics, Uncategorized, younger son.
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A lot of kids later become adults who think that math is a useless field of study.  Why would I need to know that?!  I’ve come across a lot of math books that are trying really hard to express how one can use math in order to motivate the learner by connecting it to an application as well as make it more interesting.  Connect math to the ‘real world’ is not something that comes easily to most people.

Independence Day motivated a lot of discussion with the younger son about fireworks.  While driving to our pyrotechnic fix last night, the younger son started asking what he would need to study in order to make fireworks.  Mike and I both said, “Chemistry.”  We both were assuming you need to know a lot about which chemicals to add to make particular colors.  I guess it didn’t help that I’d seen this image earlier in the day:

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We were both surprised when the younger boy said, “And I’d need to know math, too!”  We agreed.  And then he continued:

You can calculate how much of each chemical you need, how high it will go (a bigger explosion should be farther away), how fast it will go, how long it will take to before the explosion happens, how hot it will get…

He elaborated on each point and ended up spending somewhere between five and ten minutes telling us all the ways one could use math in making fireworks.  I was completely stunned.  There is this huge difficulty in getting a lot of people to understand that you can quantify and predict (through physics) so many things we take for granted.  Yet, here is a kid who hasn’t even reached an age in the double digits who seems to understand that all of these things can have some sort of number associated with them and that they behave in ways that can be predicted by mathematical equations.  Mike and I both sat there with our mouths hanging open, shocked at what we were hearing.

However, as soon as the fireworks came out of the box, the little kid in all of us came out and just wanted to go blow things up.

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Comments»

1. Mados - July 5, 2013

I like the way your son thinks:-)

A lot of kids later become adults who think that math is a useless field of study. Why would I need to know that?! I’ve come across a lot of math books that are trying really hard to express how one can use math in order to motivate the learner by connecting it to an application as well as make it more interesting. Connect math to the ‘real world’ is not something that comes easily to most people.

That is precisely why I didn’t like math as a kid, and pretty much boycotted it throughout primary school. I couldn’t see its usefulness in the real world, and the few examples of applications I heard didn’t sound relevant to anything I was interested in (which was animals:-).

When my youngest brothers, who are 20+ years younger than me, were in primary school I looked through their school materials and it was so much more interesting that what I’d had. The math book was full of real life applications, and they had “cross-field” projects, typically about wildlife or something like that, which integrated a range of subjects areas such as Math and Physics, Danish (this was in Denmark), and English. So any kid regardless of strengths, would have a chance to excel in the subject they were best at in the projects + have to see how the task also required the subjects they were not strong it, how the subjects were all meaningful.

When I was in farm school our major exam project was like that – one fictive farm project where were we had to use tools from all the subjects we’d had to do the problem solving and planning that was the exam, across subject fields like plant production, biology (plants), biology (animals), biology (enzymes and stuff), pig production, soil science, machinery technique, climate technique, building technique, finance, spraying certificate, and so on.

That was a brilliant exam design. It connected all the subjects into one coherent whole and highlighted how they are all meaningful and necessary for establishing & managing a farm (all the students’ big interest and reason for being there…).

If my childhood’s math teaching had been like my brothers’ or like the farm school project – presented around interesting real life applications and integrated it with subjects I liked, then I would not have boycotted it. I would probably have liked it, and it may even have been one of my favourites.

I am not inherently bad at math. I suck at doing calculations in my head prob. due to lack of early practice, but tend to be above-average at grasping mathematic principles – so the potential was there, just not the motivation.

Ps. I apologise if my farm school terminology is incorrect. It all took place in Danish, and I am translating the Danish subject fields directly. It would take too long to write this comments if I had to research English language agricultural terminologies first.

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Mados - July 5, 2013

Pps. and now I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to blanket-apologise for all my typos in this comment and future and past comments.

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mareserinitatis - July 9, 2013

Your English is way better than my Danish (which is completely nonexistent), so I’m in no position to criticize. 🙂

I understand that a lot of math is taught the way it is to make sure that students learn fundamentals. There’s also the danger in teaching math in a specific way such that the student isn’t able to generalize the knowledge. However, if they don’t remember what they’ve learned, then it’s not terribly effective. I think there has to be a middle road where one learns the fundamentals but enjoys it and is able to apply it or understand why it’s useful.

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Mados - July 9, 2013

I make typos in Danish too, though.

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