When will we ever use this? – Answer to the most asked question

“When will we ever use this?” has to be the most asked question in math class. I wonder what other math teachers say when this comes up.

I also wonder why it is math teachers that seem to cop this question the most.

  • Do art teachers have students putting up their hand and saying, “when am I ever going create a sub-par clay pot in real life?”
  • Do PE teachers get asked, “when am I ever going to play volleyball in real life?”
  • Do biology teachers ever get asked “why would I need to know about photosynthesis in real life?

No, it seems this is largely the math teachers burden. So what do we do?

Here’s my revolutionary idea. Tell them the truth.

When will we ever use this

“So, roughly speaking, there is a better than 3 in 4 chance that you won’t use anything more complicated than primary school math in your day to day life. Only 5% of people will ever get to show off those calculus skills they worked so hard on.”

So when a student asks me this question, I show them this graph and say the above… and they are terribly confused. So I continue…

“If I genuinely thought I was teaching you calculus here today, I would have quite a long time ago.

What I really hope I’m teaching you, dear student, is HOW TO LEARN.¬†

Once you leave school, it’s the last time you’re going to have a teacher hovering over you. If you go to university, there’s a high chance the lecturer won’t know your name. He won’t know or care if you’ve taken notes correctly, or listened, or understood the work. He won’t mark the roll, so he won’t even know if you attended. You’re going to have a part-time job, sometimes you’ll miss lectures and you’ll need to catch up.

And if you don’t go to university, well, the situation is even more dire. You’ll get a job, you’ll have a boss, and that boss will expect you to learn new things. Fast. Because you’re on the clock¬†and time is money. The business gets a new machine, a new filing system, some new software, whatever. You’ve got until midday to figure out how it works and start using it. If you don’t learn these things and start applying them… well, you aren’t much of an employee, and the boss might go looking for a new “whatever-it-is-you-do.”

So why are we learning calculus today? This is practise for the big game that is life. and if you can learn how to learn calculus, you can learn how to learn anything!”

What do you think? Too honest?



  1. Joel, I think you are spot on, although I do include some other subjects when students ask me that question, just to show (partly) that we are also deveopling “well-rounded” individuals. When are you ever going to use MacBeth at your job, unless you are an English teacher? Is that fact that Columbus sailed in 1492 every going to save your life?

    Think about factoring. Any problem woth solving will likely not be able to be factored. Unless you are a math teacher, you probably won’t use factoring ever after schooling, and likely won’t use other things like Pythagorean Theorem (well, almost https://chadtlowermath.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/bicycle-generator/ ).

    I do go beyond just learning in my explanation, though. Granted, I do want my students to know how to learn and to be lifelong learners, I also want to teach them how to follow directions, how to think, how to express ideas (and I’ve heard that if you can write about math, you can write about anything), how to pay attention and take notes, how to ask good questions, how to help others…

    Really, how to be great people.

  2. Thanks for this Joel. Great ideas for a commonly asked question!
    I’d love to create some videos of some of my tradey friends being interviewed about the Maths they use or any logical processes they might use to show it being used in real life scenarios. Also perhaps to incorporate real life problems into these videos to engage the students further in their lessons. So much to think about!
    I hope its okay if I refer to this blog in my own blog more for my own reference?


    1. Yep, Having dealt with a lot of home renovations recently, I certainly had to pull out some trig and some pythagoras a few times!

      Feel free to reference me in your own blog. Please do send me a link if you do.

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