Last week, some incredibly talented students at our high school put on an evening of one-act plays. I was particularly excited to see A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I was not disappointed – I was so impressed by how well the kids brought the classic cartoon to life. However, the play that really gave me some food for thought that night was A Straight Skinny: a story about a high school algebra class that had been caught cheating on a midterm exam.
What stuck with me most was one of the character’s monologues, which centered on the uselessness of the quadratic formula. When would we ever use it in real life? Why do students even have to learn this sort of nonsense if they’ll only forget it once the final exam is over? (I wish I had recorded the speech – it was much more acerbic, and much funnier than how I’m describing it.) It so happened that one of my Foundations 20 students was sitting two seats away from me… and – coincidence or fate? – we were learning about the quadratic formula that very week.
I knew that I couldn’t let it slide. I didn’t have much time to prepare my math elevator pitch that night, so I based it on Dylan Kane‘s, which I had stumbled upon earlier in the week. And as I had expected, the student brought up the monologue in class: “See? I knew it was useless! Seriously, when will we ever have to use this in real life?”
Now, I did once think that getting students interested in math was all about showing them its real-world applications. And I still think this is one of the ways to do so. However, no matter how many projectile questions you throw at the students, concepts like the quadratic formula will still be a hard sell. So this is what I said instead:
Once you graduate high school, you’ll probably never think about the quadratic formula again. Or maybe you will, if you decide to study business, or engineering, or any field that requires you to take some university math courses. But that’s besides the point.
Do you think in a job interview you will be asked to discuss the symbolism in Hamlet’s soliloquy? Do you think you will need to know the date that Marie Antoinette was sent to the guillotine? Probably not. But this is not why you are studying Hamlet or the French Revolution. In each case, you’re learning to see and understand the world around you in a different way, which is a valuable undertaking in and of itself.
In both of those classes, the most valuable skills you are gaining are not memorization and regurgitation, but rather critical thinking, analysis, and reasoning. The same goes for math. Personally, I don’t care if you can recite the quadratic formula once you graduate. What I care about is whether you can ask good questions, identify the important information and the tools needed to solve a problem, construct a sound argument, create a model… These are skills that are worth developing; these are the skills that will hopefully stick with you much longer than the quadratic formula.
It’s not perfect – I’m sure I’ll be tweaking it for years to come.
For instance, I don’t like how I seemed to suggest that school was all about getting a job. In fact, I had a conversation about this with a student from the same class later in the day (she is the student that has challenged me most often throughout the semester to explain the relevance of what we’re doing). She is passionate about music , so I asked her: are you studying music because it’s going to get you a job, or because it’s something that gives you joy? Does that make it any less valuable? (Speaking of math and music, that reminds me of Paul Lockhart. I’ll be re-reading his lament for the next draft of my math elevator pitch.)
It’s too bad that our society has given students the idea that everything we do should look good on our resume. Now, there’s no way around it: math skills are important for today’s job market. But if we can also help our students see the music in math, then I think that we will have truly succeeded.
P.S. I would love to hear from you: What is your math elevator pitch? How has it changed over the years?