“Why is this Useful?” A Search for Meaning in Mathematics Education

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Virginia Tech

Students often ask “when is this ever going to be useful?” when speaking about mathematics. If we take this as a question about meaningfulness, how can teachers respond and how do they even understand the terms ‘meaningful’ and ‘meaning’? I wanted to look at how college instructors thought of this and how they addressed such a question in their classrooms. Drawing on both social and individual cognition perspectives of knowledge, I can define four ways to think of what’s ‘meaningful’ about mathematics. From an individual perspective, teachers can understand ‘meaningful’ as mathematical understanding versus understanding the significance of mathematics. From a social perspective where meaning is taken as the experiences of everyday life within communities, teachers can understand ‘meaningful’ as practices the mathematics community engages versus practices of non-mathematics communities (e.g. pushing computation or critical thinking as a means for maintaining social order; Niss, 2005). To demonstrate how these meanings play out, I look at some historical goals of education and accounts of actual instructor goals. Historical examples come from education research literature. Instructor examples draw from college instructors of different mathematics classes: math for elementary education, math for liberal arts, statistics, and calculus. What I found was that mathematics instructors often did not care about when mathematics is useful, instead choosing to focus on ‘meaningful’ as mathematical understandings and inherent beauty. However, experiences of not being ‘a math person’ or with underserved communities could spark a realization that ‘meaningful’ needs to be understood and conveyed in other ways. What this might suggest is that educators may not respond to students’ questions about usefulness in diverse ways unless more educators come to appreciate mathematics who have also struggled with it personally growing up or have seen the consequences of disenfranchisement.