# Is Math Really Important?

## Welcome to the math for teaching program blog

Andy Engelward

As the director of the Harvard Extension School’s Mathematics for Teaching Graduate Program I have been able to work with hundreds of current and aspiring math teachers over the past decade. I’ve had many interesting conversations about math, math education, and the nature and art (!) of teaching and learning. In this blog I hope to share with you some of the thoughts, insights, and questions that have come up in these conversations. I will also ask friends and colleagues to share their thoughts on these topics too and to contribute to this blog as well. If you have an interest in adding to our discussion, please get in touch.

## As a starting point, let’s pose a question

**What is mathematics really about, and why do we make students study it at all?** Over the summer a somewhat provocative article showed up in the *New York Times*, written by Andrew Hacker, questioning the need for studying algebra. My immediate reaction was, “Here we go again.” It’s easy to ask the question about any particular topic in mathematics, and we all have stories of when students ask, “What’s this good for?”

Anecdotally, this question seems to hit math classes more often than history or English classes. Part of my response to this is that **math is critically involved in so much of humanity’s progress** that it is almost impossible to conceive of how we would have gotten this far without mathematics. Unfortunately, that hardly makes any one student feel better if they don’t believe that they are going to be adding to that progress in a scientific way themselves.

**Then there’s the strength of mind argument**—that studying mathematics contributes to building one’s brain muscle in a particularly effective way. A counterargument to this is that there are many ways to exercise one’s mind. Why do we ask everyone to run laps on a track if some students would rather work out by swimming or rock climbing?

Fractal images: math, art, or both?

And finally, one of the most fundamental reasons to study math is **doing math, exploring math, and creating math can be among some of the most enjoyable things that one does with one’s mind**, full of fun, interesting twists and turns, amazing vistas, and clever connections. Done with students in a way that’s unfortunately not necessarily the norm, (i.e., not as simply a repetition of facts and formulas aimed at a conquering a limited set of tasks) math can be a joyful, creative endeavor, one that can be shared with friends and strangers alike.

## So, here’s your first question ...

**Why do we ask students to study math? ** And if you’d like to stick more closely to Andrew Hacker’s original question, why do we ask all of our students to study algebra?

Please feel free to comment here, e-mail me, or come to a math for teaching class at some point and follow up with a discussion of your own with some of the teachers you’ll find there!

Studying more math in high school allows a student to do better on the sat and have a better chance to go to college. College graduates usually have a better and easier life than non college graduates. Students that study algebra 2 do better on the sat than students who don't.

February 3, 2014 at 6:59pm.The Math muscle analogy resonates with me, though I'm not sure there are other exercises that develop this strength in your brain. Running, swimming, and rock-climbing are all valuable exercises, but if you want to improve your running you have to run. You can study numbers in an applied Physics context or logic in a philosophical context but if you want to develop your ability to process numbers you have to do Math. I do think we as teachers can do more to bring to the classroom examples of how this is valuable to people who aren't looking to do Math explicitly in their chosen career. It seems to me most people are under constant bombardment from marketing that often involves numerical claims, whether it be trying to sell juice, drugs, or the next president. These are things that most are dealing with on a daily basis, so it seems like these would be a useful basis for classroom work. Maybe most teachers are already basing their class work on examples that are likely represented in their students lives. When I took Algebra I remember a few examples with apples and oranges, but mostly just the numbers and letters themselves.

October 5, 2012 at 2:10pm.Why do we ask students to study math?

- Mathematical thinking helps all other sciences and is a foundation for them.
- In daily life, we have to do decisions which are often mathematical.
- We pass through an industrial revolution which turns more and more to mathematics.
- Modern technologies are tied to mathematical theories and techniques. Examples: a thesis in photography, or a math for teaching thesis in 3D printing.
- Managing upcoming climate, energy, financial challenges requires mathematical models.
- Many successful companies today made their living from mathematical ideas. Examples are medical equipment which can scan bodies, search engines which become intelligent, or cameras which can do face recognitions or stitch pictures to a panorama.
- Mathematics is part of our culture. It helps to understand our history. See E-320: Math and History
- Much of art is inspired by mathematics: pictures, sculptures or movies or music. A page on Math movies, or Novels can illustrate this.
- It is exercise for the brain like running, biking or swimming.
- It is fun. Working on a mathematical problem can be a form of meditation.
- Mathematics is eternal. It is a science which is many thousand years old. Its truth does not depend on opinion, fashion or belief. It will be done also in thousands of years.

October 1, 2012 at 6:22pm.Yes, Mathematics is one of the important subject to learn. We can use it and apply in our everyday life as well as in your own way of thinking. Its the practical way to learn and it will show how your thinking works.

October 6, 2012 at 4:38pm.Hi, I agree it can be enjoyable but not to everyone. Math had a negative impact on me as a child. It was a nightmare that shook me. Schools should not be cruel in teaching advanced complicated Math. Thank you

October 6, 2012 at 3:02am.