May 15, 2017
Teachers Talk - Need this Stuff?
April Cottreau, Teacher, Sandy Lake Academy, Bedford, NS

What high school math teacher hasn't heard the question, "When am I ever going to need this stuff?" Oh we've all used a variety of clever responses over the years, and maybe even borrowed a few from our fellow colleagues. "You'll need to know it for tomorrow's test," "All the technology you're so fond of is based on algorithms," "We have to stay competitive in today's world," "You need to learn this stuff, or nobody will hire you!" "Students in all the developed countries are learning this math," "If you really wanted to know, you'd Google it," "Trust the experts who design curriculum; they know what they're doing,” "You don't really want to know the answer; you just want to get out of working today," "Look around at all the ways society uses numbers and see for yourself!" "You need these credits to graduate, to go to university, to get the job you want," etc.
I have actually invested in several DVDs that are even more compelling, including one about internet security being dependent on math formulas. But they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. I guess that applies to me, because after each persuasive speech I gave, the question just kept coming back. But no more - this year I quit! No, I didn't quit teaching math. I quit trying to persuade anybody of anything. I have learned the power of asking questions over providing answers.
So I asked my students in September the question before they had a chance to ask me: When are you ever going to need this stuff? As pressed as a math teacher is for time, I carved out a week of time in the schedule and gave my grade 11 students the following challenge: research a topic of your choice that needs math and answer the question.  Display your findings on a poster to share with others. I explained that future grade 11 classes would choose other career topics to add to this poster collection that would turn into a book that I would keep and share each year with younger students. I optimistically anticipate the decline of the rebel challenger as students are exposed regularly to the normalization of developing math skills in my classroom. After all, I never hear students say, "Why do we have to learn to read?"
From now on, when students ask this question, it will be students who answer it.
So as of today, the first annual projects have been completed. Colorful posters flashing attractive pictures, charts, formulas, and diagrams with eye-catching captions along with oral reports for their fellow classmates have been presented.  The next step is mounting their posters for younger passers-by to peruse and contemplate.
What topics did they choose? Medicine, space, car racing, music, and culinary arts, for starters. One student chose to devote his topic to how God uses this math stuff in the Bible.
I see now that most of my answers in the past have come across as being synonymous with "Quit bugging me - my job is to teach math, not defend it." But as I listened intently to each math student presenting today, I realized that I, too, have been hungry to know the answers to "When am I ever going to need this stuff?"