Why am I learning this math – the age old question!

the importance of math to grow thinkers

As a society, we readily understand why we need to learn how to read. We have a good grasp on how print impacts the ability to function as a productive adult. We may even understand the value of the arts as a means of enriching the world that surrounds us. But very few people understand the value of understanding mathematics beyond its connections to daily tasks like shopping, telling time, or measuring things. The discipline of mathematics, however, is so much more than such skill-based tasks.

As teachers of mathematics, it is imperative that not only can we answer the question “why am I learning this math” but that we believe the answer. Instructional goals need to reflect a deep respect for the value of mathematical thinking.

So, how then do we define mathematical thinking?

From Jeff Shriner,

“The mathematical process encourages experimentation, hypothesis testing, constructing examples and intuitive pictures, all in an effort to increase understanding. It involves viewing one question in multiple different ways. In mathematics, the “right” answer is not always the end of the story. We strive for the argument that is the most transparent or the most elegant, because how we communicate ideas matters.”

This is a quote worthy of dissecting in detail.

To begin with, this sounds a bit like the scientific method: experimentation, hypothesis testing, construction examples, intuitive pictures. I read through those words, and I am ready to roll up my sleeves and begin. When we present a mathematics lesson with goals that are reflective of higher order thinking and student-driven decision making, I can guarantee that not one student is going to think why are we doing this. They have a purpose larger than repetition and practice. When thinking about learning targets, perhaps we need to include creative and design goals such as, “students will ask questions and seek out how to answer them.”

Shriner’s statement continues to inspire – “It involves viewing one question in multiple ways.” Using one well-selected problem, students compare and contrast solution paths. By doing this, students have the opportunity to create and grow connections among ideas developing a network of understanding. In order to do this, lesson planning needs to be about determining purpose and focus. Textbook authors have given us exactly the opposite of focus when they provide 2 and 3 concepts in a given day with 20+ problems to be solved. As part of planning with a focused lens, the goal is finding and choosing ONE rich problem that allows for debate and discussion. Educators can shift the planning process from what students will DO to what they will UNDERSTAND.

Shriner goes on to say it is how we communicate the ideas that matter. “In mathematics, the right answer is not always the end of story.” Opportunities for communication in the math classroom are critical to fostering understanding and creativity. Providing opportunities for students to share, justify and debate solutions means building that time into lesson planning. If the focus and plan are for presenting one strong problem, then there is time. Educators can plan purposefully to incorporate communication into their lessons.
The reality of 2017 is that educators must find the time for this kind of teaching.

Society needs mathematically literate adults more than ever.

From Michael Resnick, MIT professor and author of Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play:

“For people to flourish in this rapidly changing landscape, the ability to think and act creatively is more important than ever before … The pace of change continues to accelerate in all types of activities, in all aspects of our lives. Today’s young people will be confronted with new and unexpected situations throughout their lives. They must learn to deal creatively with uncertainty and change. How can we help young people develop as creative thinkers so that they’re prepared for life in this ever-changing world? That’s the central question.”

I believe the answer is we teach them math. And, not the kind of math that emphasizes a list of skills to be practiced and mastered, but the kind of math that inspires students to be problem solvers, creators, debaters, authors, and question seekers who KNOW the answer to why are we learning this math because they experience this type of learning in their math classrooms daily.


As 2017 comes to a close, my call to action is that we all seek to make math a relevant, exciting, purposeful and creative experience for all learners.

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for the New Year

Resources to support this work:

9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking (Pearse and Walton, 2011) – an invaluable resource for planning rich math lessons

Learning Creative Learning – A FREE opportunity to participate in a “community of educators, designers, and tinkerers exploring creative learning through projects, passion, peers, and play” informed by Michael Resnick of MIT

Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) Hardcover – August 25, 2017

Intentional Talk (2014, Kazemi and Hintz) – resource to support intentional planning for mathematical discussions

FREE appendix of templates from Intentional Talk book

Music video answering the question “Why does math matter?” citing the research correlating number of math courses with income potential

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