“Ugh, Why do I Need to Know so Much Math!”

“Why do I need to know so much math! You don’t even use it as an adult. You only use math to do groceries.”

If you’ve taught someone math, you have likely heard this complaint. I just heard it today, again. In fact, I’ve said the same thing myself when I was a kid!

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Why Do Kids Say It?

Do kids mean it when they say it? Yes, they do. In kids’ lives, why do they need to know so much math?

They wake up with all three meals prepared FOR THEM, activities planned FOR THEM, and playdates set up FOR THEM. When all the decisions and plans have been made FOR THEM, their job is to just go through the days and have fun.

The connections that adults make between math and life come from having to make decisions — smart decisions. For kids, they haven’t had to experience much of it. They only see most of these decision making scenarios on paper as word problems in their assignmentswhen Susan needs to decide how much yarn to buy or when Tom needs to calculate the speed of his vehicle.

Kids say it because they don’t use much math [yet] in their lives.

What It Really Means

When we hear this complaint, we need to understand that math really isn’t important to kids at the moment. They’re learning math as a skill to prepare for their adulthood.

What has helped me, is to translate this complaint into questions in our own head:

“Can you explain the WHY (for this topic) better?”

and

“WHEN will it help me?”

The Constructive Way To Respond

When you’re able to turn the complaint into a question, you would want to answer it instead of forcing the assignment back on the child.

Every time I hear “why do I need to know this”, I take the assignment away from my student and focus on explaining how knowing this topic well has helped me live my life smarter.

Yes, the purpose of learning math is to “HELP YOU LIVE SMARTER BY MAKING BETTER DECISIONS!” 

It grabs my students’ attention EVERY TIME, because everyone wants to live smart.

By now I’ve only grabbed their attention. I’ve only turned a problem in their head into something that helps them live smarter. But the concept of living smart is vague for them. Before I lose them again, I specify further using whatever topic they’re feeling bored or frustrated on.

Once I’ve got it under control, I take a step back and check which one(s) of the “5 Milestones of Math Coaching” is missing. Most likely it’s the very first step, “Coach the WHY and WHEN” that was not done properly, or at all. My students that know the slope formula by heart have never been able to tell me in their own words what slope means.

Specific Examples

The more specific you can be using life examples, the more “living smart” makes sense to the child. Based on the topic, include the words “…. I live smarter ….” in your explanation.

For example:

“If you can bike to your friend’s house, would you choose to walk all the time? We can save time if we bike. I can save time and live smart by knowing my multiplication facts so I don’t need to add the same number over and over again, and make a mistake in the process. That’s saved me at least hours in my life so far.” 

As another example:

“Do you know what you’re doing with your best friend next time you guys hang out? What about after next time? And after that? How do you know? See, you can guess and plan for the future based your past playdates (data) to figure out what might happen next, and that’s statistics. That’s living smart.” 

The Best Answer Though

Kids complain about having to learn so much math because they don’t see how it helps them live smarter. You probably don’t need to convince them why they’ll need to learn to drive because they see you do it all the time. Similarly, if they see you use math as a tool all the time, it’s so much more convincing than giving them a speech every other day.

That said, the best answer is YOU. Most K-12 math topics can help us live smarter and make good decisions fast. There would be specific topics that you might not have learned at all or well enough to be able to use it in life. That’s ok. Someone else must have! Find that person around you and ask that person to tell his/her story of “I’ve lived smarter using this math concept (when)…”

Please comment below if you have any questions on how to respond to any specific topic that your child is losing interest on!

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