Tuesday, December 12, 2006

When Am I Going To Use This In The Real World?

All you middle and high school teachers out there who have never heard this question, please raise your hands!

Even in the medium of this blog, I can be fairly sure that not one teacher has their hand in the air. Even us non-teachers can say with a fair degree of certainty that much of what is taught in school has a real world application, the problem is that application is missing from lessons. In an op-ed appearing in today's Seattle Times, Dr. Catherine Taylor laments the fact that mathematics classes in particular do a very poor job showing how all those drill and kill skills that kids practice over and over relate to real world problem solving.

For teh TV minded out there, I draw your attention to the CBS Show "Numb3rs" in which a math professor brother of an FBI agent uses various mathematical models to help solve crimes. While some of the theories seem a little contrived, at least it can show one application of how math can help solve real world problems. But as Dr. Taylor points out, not everything has to be higher order, model based mathematics:
There are two problems with this scenario. First, very few people become theoretical mathematicians; few discover the purpose of abstract mathematics. Second, memorizing dozens of abstract procedures doesn't help students understand how to use mathematics to solve theoretical or everyday mathematical problems.

For example, systems of equations can be used to decide which of two investments will yield the best profits or under what conditions two investment options will result in the same profit; geometric transformations can be used to create video games and graphic designs; statistics can be used to describe or predict changes in weather, population, air pollution, consumer confidence, etc.
But the application problem does not end with math.

Take economics for instance. Economics is a fascinating subject if presented with some real world appliations, witness the popularity of Freakonomics. But as my wife and I learned in college, most economics classes stick with the basic theory and concenpts, which it must, but fail to draw any connections with the real world. Most people can intuitively understand the concept of supply and demand and the effect of both on price. But what impact on both supply, demand and price do government regulations, weather patterns, sales incentives, and other factors have on the old supply and demand graphs. If Economics were presented in college as a course designed to study the effect of incentives upon the actions of individuals and large groups, I would have been more interested in teh class, rather than suffering through it as a required course.

To be sure, the basic threat of failure of the next test or poor scores on exit exams or the SAT often motivates many students to put forth the minimal effort to learn the material. But what if you can enrich those students and garner the attention of those who might otherwise slough off with a little real world application, might that not be worth the effort.

No comments: