Why math matters

Sweety Rastogi

When I went to school, it was common for the teacher to place a textbook on the desk and ask one of the students to read, or the teacher would fill up the blackboard and say, “Copy down”. There would be no conversation between the teacher and her students.

The classroom environment today is completely different. The moment you announce a topic in class, you are bombarded with questions such as, why are we studying this topic? Where will it help us in future? What is the real-life connection of this particular concept?

If you do not answer their whys, whats and wherefores, they will not show any interest in the class.

As a teacher, it is necessary that we satisfy and give relevant answers to our students’ queries. As a math teacher, I have to be up to date on the new job opportunities in the field of mathematics and find real life connections to the concepts I am teaching in class.

While teaching tax computation, one student asked me,
Ma’am, why do I need to know tax computation?
I want to be an entrepreneur; I will hire a CA for this job.

Answering such questions satisfactorily is indeed a challenging task. One has to be diplomatic to handle such situations as there are 60 eyes looking at you to find out how well you will handle the situation.

Though, not very comfortable in explaining his query, I portrayed confidence in front of the class with my body language and answered –
“I am amazed to know that you want to be an entrepreneur. It is not an easy aim as you need to overcome the initial hurdles of starting a business, funding the project, attracting customers and maintaining your share in the market. Do you think with all these tasks at hand, you will be able to hire a CA right from the beginning?

Even if you are able to hire a CA, who will counter check the output? If you know tax computation, don’t you think, at least once or twice in a year, you would like to review your company’s data?

Every branch of mathematics has perforated deep into other fields. One needs to have a basic knowledge of every subject especially mathematics to understand and use it in our daily lives whenever required.”

Our job as math teachers, apart from teaching math, is to make them aware that – They are growing up in a world permeated by mathematics. The technologies used in homes, schools, and the workplace are all built on mathematical knowledge. Many educational opportunities and good jobs require high level of mathematical expertise. Whether using computer graphics on the job or spreadsheets at home, people need to move fluently back and forth between graphs, tables of data and formulas. To make good choices in the marketplace, they must know how to spot flaws in deductive and probabilistic reasoning as well as how to estimate the results of computations. Not only should we be able to motivate our students to learn math, we should also be able to prove that math is interwoven with other subjects and can be enjoyed.

Try starting your math class in a lighter mode, so that as teacher, you are able to grab everyone‘s attention in the class.
Today, we are going to find adjectives in the math book.
The moment I said this, students started saying
Ma’am – This is a math lesson and you are a math teacher.

Since we treat math as a different subject, students were confused with this idea of adjectives in a math lesson.

But, I got amazing answers –
Straight line,
Right circular cylinder,
Linear equations,
Quadratic equations,
Rational numbers,
Irrational numbers,

The list is endless even in a math textbook. After all, adjectives are words that describe nouns. With this activity, I was able to impress upon the class that even a math teacher knows English. My purpose to bring them on track was easily accomplished on that day.

One day, in order to channelize the class in the right mathematics mode, I set a rule that every child will use seven in whatever sentence he or she wants to speak:

Besides, getting traditional answers like
Seven – a cardinal number, Seven – an odd number, Seven – a prime number, I also got variety of answers from them –
What is seven?
seven children; seven ideas;
seven times in a row;
seventh grade;
seven metres of cotton;
seven stories high;
seven miles from here;
seven acres of land;
seven degrees of incline;
seven degrees below zero;
seven grams of gold;
seven pounds per square inch;
seven years old;
finishing seventh;
seven thousand rupees of debt;
seven percent alcohol;
engine no. 7;
the magnificent seven.

How can one word be used in so many different ways, denoting such different senses of quantity?

Consider how different a measure of time (seven years) is from that of temperature (seven degrees), how different a measure of length (seven meters) is from a count (seven children), and how different each of these is from a position (finishing seventh or being in seventh grade). Even within measures, some are represented as ratios (seven pounds per square inch, seven percent alcohol) and others as simple units (seven miles, seven litres).

Although normally taken for granted, it is remarkable that seven, or any number for that matter, can be used in so many ways. That versatility helps explain why number is so fundamental in describing the world.

Numbers are ideas, abstractions that apply to a broad range of real and imagined situations. Operations with numbers, such as addition and multiplication, are also abstractions. Yet in order to communicate about numbers and operations, people need representations – something physical, spoken, or written. And in order to carry out any of these operations, they need algorithms: step-by-step procedures for computation.

Unknown numbers can be calculated through algebra, numbers can be constructed through geometry and can be predicted through probability.

Numbers are embedded in our lives so much that every other idea of numbers has a different meaning. If students are to become proficient in mathematics, teaching must create learning opportunities that are both constrained and open.

The author is a teaching practitioner with an experience of over 19 years of mentoring students. Currently she is the Head of the Department of Mathematics at Learning Paths School, Mohali. She has been writing in various teacher journals for liberating the teaching process specially for mathematics to accommodate change. She can be reached at [email protected].

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