My students have been giving me a run for my money recently with “when am I ever going to use this???” It’s a good question, and it come from the message math teachers send, implicitly and explicitly, that math is important to learn because you will need it in (insert your favorite) the real world/your job/everyday life/etc.
I’ve been refining my elevator speech for math — my succinct response to the question, “why math?” that underscores its importance, whether we are working with proportions, exponential functions, the real number system, or conics. Here is my current best draft.
I don’t teach math because I believe you will need it in your job, or in your everyday life. You may — and learning math will certainly keep options open for your future — but that is not why I teach math. I hope your history teacher is teaching about the Revolutionary War not because it is relevant to your everyday life, but for you to gain more context for understanding our world. I hope your literature teacher is teaching Animal Farm not so you can get a job, but so you gain a new perspective on your interactions with others.
Mathematics is the practice of solving problems — identifying relevant information, creating models, thinking strategically, contextualizing and decontextualizing, constructing arguments, and examining the logic of others. This takes hard work and a great deal of knowledge — knowledge of numbers, computation, mathematical structure, problem-solving strategies, and a wide variety of mathematical content. To be an educated person means having this knowledge and knowing how to apply it — as one small part of what we hope you leave school with. The questions we answer that lead to this learning may come from the workplace, or they may come from something lying in the street — but the purpose of the problem is the learning of mathematics, and these are problems worth solving.