Why Teach Math?

mathI’ve never met a math teacher who was not asked to answer the inevitable moan from her students, “Why do we have to learn this?” Unfortunately, the most common response: “It’s going to be on the test.” What kind of message does that give about learning, and about math? Is working to get a grade on a test the kind of motivation that will prepare them for a life of learning, of engaged participation in God’s restorative work? Are they going to get a grade in Kingdom Life 101? Even on earth, they are unlikely to ever take a test after they leave school, but will rather be judged by their character and the quality of their work.

A better answer I sometimes hear is because they are going to need math in life: you want to make sure and get the right change when you go to the grocery store or keep track of your finances when you balance your checkbook.

When’s the last time you actually used cash at the grocery store? Even if you did, the registers are all automated and dispense the exact amount of change without requiring any more thought than it takes to tie your shoe. My guess would be that 99% of our students will never do a long division problem, divide fractions, or calculate slope for the rest of their lives. Even if they do pursue a job that requires some mathematics, it’s unlikely they can imagine it when the teacher suggests they will need it in the future. And if they can imagine it, they wouldn’t be the ones asking why we need math.

A still more compelling answer is that in learning math we are not just learning about numbers and computations, but we are actually learning how to think. We are learning logic, problem-solving strategies, analytic reasoning. This provides a more convincing rationale to the math class. But even so, it seems like students are spending a lot of time in workbooks, doing the same kinds of problems over and over. It’s not so clear to them how this math stuff is helping them learn to think outside of answering these irrelevant word problems.

And then there is the answer that we learn about God through math. We learn He is a God of order, of patterns, of complex relationships. That’s true, but I wonder if it is more like something we tell ourselves – a kind if intellectual rationale that despite its truth, doesn’t really fill us with awe. It may hold off the student rebellion, even if it doesn’t inspire us to love him more.

How can we invite students into a compelling story that makes ‘why we need to learn math’ more of an adventure, a search for the ever-greater mystery rather than a process for getting the right answer?

How about this: Everything on earth conceals some secret that only numbers can reveal! In every experience we have, every object we observe, there is something in it we can count and measure. Consider a tree. There are all manner of things about a tree we can count and measure. And the beautiful ‘secrets’ of one aspect of the tree is revealed in the language of mathematics. Scientists and mathematicians create the most intricate and elegant equations to describe one aspect of the things they study. I emphasize one aspect so as not to reduce the beauty of the tree to some mathematical/chemical formula. The biologist describes another, as well as the naturalist, the lumberjack, the poet and the carpenter. The more perspectives I can imagine, the more I will understand the fullness of the tree.

So here is the adventure: we study math to prepare ourselves to discover the particular hidden secret in all of God’s creation that only numbers can reveal. In the design of this chair I am sitting on, the airplane I am riding in. In the amazing functions of the most complex computer calculations that in fact, are all based on the simple structure of 0 and 1; on and off. In the way the tree somehow gets water and minerals from the roots, hundreds of feet up to the top leaves. What about that 23½° tilt of the earth, upon which all life depends? And the geometry that allows water to break all the rules and expand instead of contract when it freezes? Life depends on that too: when the pond freezes the ice floats instead of sinking, and the water below remains liquid to protect the life that lives there.

Our eyes see the colors. Our ears hear the melodies. Our fingers feel the textures. But only our minds and imaginations can grasp the hidden secrets of the world of numbers, and that’s why we want to learn all we can about math. And yes, isn’t the God of all things awesome!


Once I began the year in an empty classroom. I challenged my 4th grade students to design, fund and build their own learning environment. I invited them back when they were in sixth grade to reflect on what they learned and how they had learned it. Contact Steven Levy for more information about this project.

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