Oh yeah. The question.
Undoubtedly, it has been asked to all teachers of mathematics. When you earn your teaching license, you accept this fate.
When I think about this question, the first thing that enters my mind is not how to reply. I’ve realized that no answer I provide, regardless of how sensible it is, will satisfy their need to question the relevancy of mathematics. I can convey its importance to engineers, accountants, and architects, but it won’t matter. I could talk with them about how mathematics is a vehicle for developing problem solving and sense-making, but that’s far too abstract to gain any traction. I could also indicate that Homer’s Iliad won’t connect explicitly to any real world decision that they will need to make, but they’re still required to read and analyze it. That too, although true, will not be an adequate response for them.
So what do I do when I’m asked the question?
Well, I ask myself a question: how can I make this lesson, and all lessons, more engaging?
You see, if a student is fully immersed in my lesson, if they’re experiencing my lesson and not just getting through it, there won’t be a need to ask the question. They’ll be so connected to what I planned for them that it won’t even enter their minds. If I find my students asking me when they’re ever going to use what they’re learning in the real world, I’ve already lost.
Besides, I don’t think most students even care where mathematics applies to the real world. By asking, they’re just trying to fill a void. A void that has been created by a lack of engagement and meaning within my lesson. In other words, when a student asks me the question, what they’re really asking is, “Mister, how can you make this more engaging?”
And the answer to that question exists largely within me and my teaching. Not the real world.