John Urschel is is an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. He is also currently pursuing his doctorate in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a recent commentary in Education Week he said, “In some sense, everybody has to become a mathematician. We all face problems that require mathematical concepts. The better we can solve them, the better off we’ll be.” When I read that, I thought about the math we encounter in everyday life or math in the real world, and why students might inevitably ask if they will ever use mathematical concepts that they learn in school. I really don’t know if I have ever used every bit of math I have ever learned and applied it to something in my life, but I do know that I need math in my everyday life.
The 2017-18 school year is now under way. John Urschel’s commentary focused my attention back to math in the classroom and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, and especially the mathematical practices. The standards and practices state goals, and are a good guide for how we need to go about teaching mathematics in our classrooms. For instance, Mathematical Practice #4, Model with mathematics, states, “Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.” The mathematical practices describe the expertise that students need in order to be good mathematicians and what proficiencies educators need to foster and develop in them. Students come to school to learn and become prepared to use math as a lifelong tool, and it is teachers who are responsible for keeping the interest of students so they can learn and be successful. Teachers get to be creative and have students do math from the real world.
Being good at math means you have good number sense and are a good problem solver. We use and need math every day. Think about challenging yourself as a mathematics teacher to see if you can have students avoid asking the age-old question, “When will I use this math ever again?” Don’t bring the real world into math, but find how math is used in the real world. Learning and knowing math brings opportunities to understand and interpret our world. To me, that is what the learning is about, and not about performing math facts just to do them, but how to apply them.