Curiosity Driven Mathematics

In my very first years of teaching, I used to have students ask me, in that age-old, cliche teenage fashion, “When are we ever going to use this?”  I vividly remember my response being, “Maybe never.  But there are plenty of other things we do in life, like play video games, that have no real-world application. That doesn’t seem to bother us too much.”

In fact, if every moment of our lives needed to apply to the bigger picture, the REAL-world, when would we do anything for pure enjoyment? or challenge?  or even spite?  I know kids are capable of this because some of them spend hours upon hours a day engaging not only with a video game but also collaborating with other people through their game system.

And furthermore, where do we think this resentment for learning math really comes from?  I have a guess…probably adults who have realized that through the course of their lives, being able to solve a polynomial equation algebraically is not all that useful! News flash, math teachers:  Our secret is out! 

There are many kids across all levels of achievement that will not engage in the learning process simply because the state mandates it or the teacher swears by its real-world relevance.  Students (and arguably people in general) are motivated by immediate consequences and results and cannot easily connect that the algebra they are learning today will be the key to success in the future.  They do not care that if they don’t nail down lines, they’ll never have a prayer understanding quadratics.  If they are bored to death by linear functions, I can’t imagine that they have even an inkling of desire to comprehend the inner workings of a parabola.  

What does resonate with learners is the satisfaction of completing a difficult task, puzzling through a complicated scenario, or engaging in something for pure enjoyment.  Kids are naturally problem-solving balls of curiosity.   There are ways to provoke curiosity and interest while simultaneously engaging in rich mathematics.  I think many teachers assume that in mathematics, especially Algebra, curiosity and deep understanding need to be mutually exclusive, and I’m positive that mindset is dead wrong.  For example, show this card trick to any group of kids, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a group who isn’t trying to figure out how it works.  I also think you’d be hard-pressed to find the real-world relevance to a card trick.  It’s still no less amazing, as well as algebraic.  



1 Comment

  1. Megan

    Thanks for an eloquent defense of learning here. The opening paragraph reminds me of something a math ed prof used to tell us. He’d say that the surest way to starve was to sit on a corner with a sign reading ‘Will solve quadratics for food’ I always appreciated his sense of humor and reminder that ‘real life’ was not always a justification for learning something. The mystery to me is the resentment you referred to regarding mathematics. I do wonder whether our peers in biology, Spanish classes, etc. hear the cry as often as we do in our math classes.

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