Why “I’ll Never Use This” Doesn’t Apply to 21st-Century Math Skills

Learner Experience, Learning, Learning Design

By Eileen Murphy Buckley

It’s a common refrain of students slumped behind desks in a math classroom as they grind through another impossibly long set of algebra problems: “I’m never going to use this!”

It’s true that many of them will never have to solve a quadratic equation again once they leave school. However, the critical thinking and mathematical habits of mind that they should be learning in a math class will be essential to their successes in their careers, in civic life and even in their personal lives.

Real Life Math

Mathematical thinking is required in some way or another in most careers today. Of course, using mathematics is essential in STEM-focused careers, such as engineering or economics. But the same practices and skills are useful in so many less obvious careers as well. Whether you are an entrepreneur determining the unit economics of your small business or a member of a team in a larger organization, most mid- to high-skilled professionals are being asked to build, measure and learn.

Many larger organizations, in industries from education to healthcare and consumer businesses, require team members to have the ability to think about the mathematics of success and failure: not just profit and loss but impact, scale and efficiency. Simply put, being able to make reasoned arguments driven by data will be a job requirement for most of our students going forward.

Making sense of situations mathematically is also an important part of everyone’s personal life, no matter what career path students take. People make spending decisions every day. For example, should we buy an older, used car that gets low gas mileage or spend more on a new hybrid car? These kinds of budgeting decisions are not based on one set formula where we plug in numbers and solve for x.

Instead, they involve thinking mathematically, deciding on the factors that are important to your situation: Are you most concerned about the money you’re putting down now? The overall cost, including gas and maintenance? The carbon footprint?

Mathematical thinking is equally essential to civic life. Consider two politicians who are proposing different tax policies. Both of the politicians will, of course, say that their proposals are best for the country, but what does “best” actually mean, according to the numbers? Best for whom, under what conditions?

Being able to understand both sides of the argument from a mathematical perspective, evaluate the evidence and data that presented, and critique each politician’s reasoning allows all of us to make the best decision or generate new possible solutions. In addition, effectively expressing your mathematical thinking and the conclusions you draw from it to persuade others to agree with you is an important part of civic engagement.

Through these examples, it’s clear how powerful and valuable mathematical thinking is. The question now is how to help students understand that. The answer lies in making math authentically engaging and useful to students in their real lives.

Making A Math Connection

This “real-life” connection, though, is not a matter of taking a volume formula and applying it to an iced coffee, as Dan Meyer notes. It’s about empowering students to notice situations and phenomena around them, wonder and ask questions about them, and then make sense of them or make decisions about them through mathematical reasoning from evidence.

We should be concerned much less with students getting the “right” answer and more with students thinking critically and using mathematical sense-making practices to analyze a situation. For the problems most of our students will encounter and be asked to solve throughout their lives, there is no single “right” answer, and we want students to be comfortable with that concept and to be confident in thinking about a situation in a variety of mathematically sound ways.

Teachers can incorporate these practices into their math classrooms by:

  • Providing relevant content for students to think about mathematically. Lessons should be based on texts describing real-world situations: anything from examining the architecture of Santiago Calatrava when learning about transformations to determining the impacts of certain voting policies based on real voter turnout data.
  • Supporting thinking about math problems in new ways. Students can write about a second argument—that is, another way that someone might think about a problem—to reinforce the idea that there is more than one mathematically valid way to think about any situation.
  • Focusing on having students explain their mathematical reasoning in writing and discussion. Outside the classroom, people usually use math to make a decision or persuade someone to agree with their opinion. To do this successfully, you must be able to explain your reasoning clearly and effectively. Having students create written or oral arguments based on mathematical evidence and reasoning mirrors the way people will actually use math in real life.

These are the real math skills people need, not the ability to endlessly produce the single numerical answer to a problem. To be successful in 21st-century career, personal and civic life, people need the ability to solve unstructured problems.

Robots will increasingly take over many structured and even non-routine tasks, as a recent report by OECD points out. And this polarization of jobs is directly tied to the polarization of the quality of life our students can hope to achieve. We owe it to our students to help them learn these skills and to understand that they will, in fact, be using them in ways that haven’t even been invented yet.

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Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA. Follow her on Twitter: @eileencerca.


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1 Comments

Jim Laney /

The WEF’s Future of Jobs report highlights two key skills that we need to be developing in our students now: math skills and people skills. A Learner Profile curriculum is needed, along with a math curriculum that helps students learn to solve deep problems, reason, model and communicate.