Recently, one of my students in my basic skills math courses (college level) asked the question that most math instructors dread answering, "Mr. Diaz, why do I need to learn this?" I have been asked this question so many times before, but I always had the impression that my responses were not convincing enough for my students to see the importance of learning mathematics. My usual responses were "You need a solid foundation to succeed in the higher level math courses" or "What you are learning may not make sense or seem useless right now but at some point you will need it for your career." However, I decided to use the socratic method and an analogy this time around to convince my student about the importance of learning math. For the sake of making easier to follow the discussion that happened in my class, I will call "Z" for the student who questioned the purpose for learning math and "B" for another student who took interest in taking part of the discussion. Here is the dialogue that took place in my classroom.
"Z" asked at loud, "Mr. Diaz, let's be real, why do I need to learn all this Algebra?!" Mr. Diaz responded, "Well, let me answer your question with another question. What you prefer to be, an intelligent or ignorant person?" "Z" answered back but with a not convincing tone, "You're right, I prefer to be considered an intelligent person." Mr. Diaz then said, "Z, when people want to join the Marines, Air Force, Navy or the Army, what are they required to do first?" "Z" said, "Well, they teach them how to shoot." Mr. Diaz replied, "Before they are taught how to use a weapon, what these people have to experience first?" "Z" said, " Oh! They go to basic training." Mr. Diaz asked "Why they need to go basic training? To use a weapon, they do not need to do push ups, pull ups, running a mile, and so forth!" "Z" was perplexed with my question and was not able to give an answer when "B," another student, shouted "They go to basic training to build up muscles and become fit for battle!!" Mr. Diaz excited said "Exactly!!! For the same reason, you are taking this class. Your are building up the muscle you have in your head...the brain!," while pointing his index finger to his head. Mr. Diaz added "You are training your brain to think and problem solve. You are training to work smarter, not harder." The discussion ended with "Z" smiling at me and acknowledging that I had a good point that he could not argue anymore. "Z" continue doing his math work.
I believe learning mathematics is about having a postive attitude and an open mind to become aware of the mathematical events around us and the mathematical actions we do everyday. I want to help students avoid their anxieties when learning and doing this subject matter. To accomplish this, I need to connect mathematics with my students' lives.