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Math is rarely taught in a way that is relevant to students. (Photodisc)
Math is rarely taught in a way that is relevant to students. (Photodisc)

Campus Life

What do you remember from math class? Not retirement planning Add to ...

My students are unaware that they are careening towards misery, while I am gently drifting into happiness. I know this because I’m looking for a way to connect high-school math with everyday life.

High school is largely irrelevant to teens, except as a means to an end (job, college or university) and a social commons. Subjects become increasingly abstract, especially in mathematics, and as the level of abstraction increases, relevance decreases (an inverse relationship, but you don’t remember this from math class and it doesn’t matter anyway). Math textbooks try to throw in a few lifelike questions about sales tax – as if you carry a calculator to Walmart – and the more recent editions challenge you to estimate the answer – because you don’t carry a calculator to Walmart. History might be a little more successful, perhaps shortening the line between a teen’s daily life and the distant past by showing how Lester Pearson’s effort in the Suez is just like mediating conflict by the school lockers without resorting to Facebook retaliation.

As an intermittent math teacher I’ve tried to make the abstractions more than just about puzzle solving and I’ve had some success with the less abstruse courses. In applied classes I’ve brought in bags of M & Ms, which kids break open in the manners of contestants on Survivor who won the immunity challenge and got donuts. We use the contents to create pie charts, calculate percentages, show ratios (of red to green, say) and write letters to the company complaining about the lack of brown candies. Then we eat the raw data.

In the spring, we have headed outdoors to use simple geometry to measure the height of the school. Many of them believe the task is better done by climbing on top and dropping a string, but I explain that this would be impractical if the school were ten stories. We have wandered around the school calculating the slope of the stairs to see if they meet building codes, and where there is a slight deviation, they argue that we should petition to have the school declared unsafe. I have challenged them to find math in movies and when they do, we watch the film and dissect the brief but pivotal scene where math is crucial to the outcome (Die Hard has a good one).

Still, school is hugely irrelevant to kids except as a way to move onto another phase in their lives or maintain social connections. We teach them how to write a resume and conduct a job search at the moment they enter the labour force, but maybe we should wait another year or two. We foist our anxieties about retirement and financial ignorance on them and make them calculate compound interest and amortization periods without a filament of connection to their own homes. In economics, I teach them about monetary policy while they really want to talk about Inside Job and if I mention retirement plans, they remind me that many people are counting on lottery wins to get them through to the end and we might as well be talking about death.

Lately, I have taught about parabolas, those U-shaped curves that can be used to model all sorts of things, like the arc of a soccer ball or a rocket, or the span of a bridge. Not once in the textbooks have I ever seen this unusually relevant example: human happiness.

Happiness research is a popular field now and there is a glut of articles and books about the topic. Everyone wants to be happy and so we buy these books and read these articles to affirm our pursuit of happiness and to find out why we can’t get it. I was very pleased to discover a recent study found that happiness follows the U-shape of the parabola! When I found this, too late for my current class, I vowed to impose it on any future class to explain why my mood was about to change.

Happiness goes downhill starting at 18 and continues on that trajectory until you are 50. Then it begins to climb again and, in a giddy leap of logic, you are as happy on the day you die as when you were six. I turned 50 just over a year ago, and knowing that I am leaving the bottom of the parabola (and my maximum misery) I can feel the theoretical happiness pushing aside my shrinking sourness. The kids in my class need to know this: That they are as happy as they will ever be for another three decades and that the happiest teachers are the old ones. I love math when it’s useful.

Kevin Bray is a Toronto teacher. This essay first appeared on his blog, insidethereadingbox.com

Campus Life looks at issues affecting students, teachers and faculty in the education system.

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