Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why Math is Important?

The question of why math is important usually arises when children have learned how to count, add, substract, multiply, and divide; and they come to believe they know all they need to know to function adequately in life. After all, if one understands how to keep track of his own money, figure out what it means when a scale shows two additional pounds, or cut a cake so there'll be enough pieces for everyone, what else do we need to know?
The littlest children who don't like math can usually understand the explanation that knowing how to handle money, telling time, cooking, sharing things, or knowing how many of any item will be left if some are used, all require knowing math. Younger children can usually understand why it's important to know how to measure how tall something is or how heavy it is, and they can usually understand how doing things like wallpapering or hanging window shades call for knowing how to measure.
What's not as easy for children of any age, but particularly as kids get older and the math gets more advanced, is to understand how algebra-based math factors into our lives if we are not (or don't plan to have) careers in math-related fields. Once math starts to seem less "number-ish" and more "algebra-ish" it can start to appear a little more "useless" to kids who aren't math-inclined.
When it comes to algebra-related math, it is, of course, easy for kids to understand that there are jobs and careers where knowledge of advanced math is crucial. In science-related jobs (which include the field of medicine) or math-related jobs it is important to have that solid knowledge of math. Gaining that solid knowledge starts with the learning the most basic aspects of math and building on it. Since many students don't know what they'll want to do when they grow up, it makes sense for them to get a foundation in math which will prepare them for college or work, if it turns out they choose a future that will call for knowing advanced math.
For those who know - without a doubt - that their future does not include a career in a math- or science-related field, there are still some after-high-school courses or jobs that call for at least some use of math. For example, some clerical or retail jobs may still require the use of math; and while, these days, most people rely on electronic means to get basic math calculations done, there can still be times when a person's knowledge of math is required.
Besides the possibility of needing math in an otherwise "non-math" job, the person who has a foundation in basic algebra has learned a way to solve problems that are not necessarily math problems. Algebra is a way to put "labels" on different aspects of a problem, and use a logical approach to see likely outcomes or solutions. Algebra is a way to "turn anything in life into a math problem" and see an organized, structured, way to think about that problem (sometimes without any numbers even being involved).
For example, if I'm trying to figure out how much of my pay I need to put away to buy a prom dress in five months, but my part-time job means working a different number of hours each week, and I'm not sure how much the dress will cost; I could either guess about a "zillion" different amounts of money I'll make each week, over the next five months; and then guess about all the possible prices of prom dresses; and then do a "zillion" different little calculations about all the possible scenarios. If I do that I'll be looking at pages and pages of a whole bunch of different scenarios, and I still won't have my answer.
If I know algebra, I can use it to come up with a formula that will show me how the percentage of pay that I put away each week will have to change (and how much), depending how what I've already earned and how much time is left.
Beyond that, though, a person could also use the logic of the "labels" and formulas that algebra offers to help them decide something like whether or not to go to a certain college or leave a marriage.
Our brains have the ability to think logically, but if we don't learn "the language of logic" our brains don't have those "labels" to put on "invisible concepts". A comparison is this: Our bodies have the potential to tap dance or perform ballet, but if we don't take dancing lessons we will either not know how to dance properly or all, or we'll learn a superficial way to dance that won't allow us to move beyond that to a more advanced level. Thinking logically is the same kind of thing, and in order to move beyond "basic logical thinking" on to a more advanced level of thinking logically, we need to learn the steps. Every person in the world benefits from having an ability to think more logically, whether or not he will ever become a mathematician.
Not only do people, who have learned at least basic algebra, use it to solve problems; but they will also understand when others refer to its principles or to their own approach to a problem, in conversation. The problem with algebra is that nobody understands its use until they understand algebra, itself. Once someone has learned algebra he will use it solve problems and wonder how he ever lived without it. I suppose it's kind of like a person who learns to dance but thinks she will become a chemist when she grows up. She may not quite know how she''ll ever use that dancing ability, but one day she may find herself in a community theatre production where a dancer is needed, or teaching someone else to dance, or using dance as a way to exercise.
While algebra-related math leans to "higher thinking", geometry-related math is a more "Earthly" math. Although there are professions/jobs that rely heavily on a solid, advanced, understanding of geometry, like algebra, having at least a basic knowledge of it is something that is useful in "regular" life, as well. People who do woodworking as a hobby use geometry, but the person who learning exercises for fitness or dance steps may be told that their arm should be at a specific angle. Knowing what that means requires knowing geometry too. Having a basic understanding of things like shapes, angles, lines, depth, or volume is something that (although we may not use this knowledge every day in our lives) allows us to function in a world that generally expects at least a basic understanding of these things. Whether we are hearing the explanation of how a plane crashed, or following assembly instructions for something we've purchased, that very basic knowledge of geometry lets us be "on the same page" as the rest of the "non-math" world.
If you got a group of eighteen-year-olds together, they may talk about something like world events or the presidential election; but they may also talk about their own "world" of the latest fashions, music, friends, and school-related things. The 55-year-old person may be at a complete loss to have anything to offer, or to understand, what all those younger people were talking about. Those young people would have their own interests and even language, and they would have knowledge about things like the latest recording artist that other people may not have.
The grown-up world that includes a whole range of people over a certain age (living their lives, cooking, working, having hobbies, managing money, planning, etc.) has its own language too; and that language often includes references to, or the need to understand, at least a basic level of math (including algebra and geometry). There are a lot of things that people in the grown-up world run into that they wouldn't have realized they would when they were younger. Math isn't just about whether we work in a math- or science- related field. It's about understanding the world around us and functioning in it.
When we learn how to do the most basic math calculations when we're in the lower, primary, grades we may build on that knowledge and eventually become wizards in the field of finance. Then again, we may only use what we learn to calculate our grocery bill or figure out how much we've lost in the stock market. When we learn the aspects of math that are related to algebra and geometry it's the same kind of thing. We may build on that knowledge, or we may simply use what we learn at the basic level when we're called upon to use it in day-to-day living.
There are also times when we don't plan to take a job in math, but we find ourselves faced with a possible promotion to a different job, based on whether or not we have basic knowledge of math.
Words are, of course, useful in this world; but words can only be used to accomplish some kinds of things. Words help us paint a picture of the world, but numbers and math give us the tools we need to understand how the the world and the universe work. For students who are naturally inclined to enjoy, and be good at, math, the understanding of math's place in the world comes naturally. When students are more inclinded toward verbal skills and/or the arts, their interests and hobbies often are not activities that involve math. As a result, they can live their lives as students, never quite seeing the "use" of math for anyone who doesn't plan to build a career on it.
What makes the situation more difficult is that students who don't particularly care about math often don't pay much attention in class or else don't learn it very easily. With math, the better an understanding a student has of how "all of math fits together", the more readily its use will become apparent.

By Lisa HW

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1 comment:

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