Usually I think I have it pretty easy. My kids do their homework, get good grades, and are responsible. Having worked with students and taught college classes for years, I feel equipped to help them with homework when they need it. But this year, my daughter has an Algebra 2 class, which she hates. As a result, she struggles with learning concepts and doing homework—and her difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that her teacher basically refuses to explain material in class. Each night as she works through assignments, I sit by her, trying to explain materials (it was different when I was in school, she reminds me) and offer encouragement. Inevitably, she asks why she should even bother with Algebra 2, as her career plans will not involve math.
I have to admit that although I was a strong student in math, I have used algebra exactly three times since I left school: when I worked in a tutoring center if the math tutor didn’t show up and I didn’t have too many writing students, I would help students with their algebra homework; when my son was in high school, I would answer questions in algebra if he had them; and now I have to call on my knowledge of algebra to help my daughter. So answering her question about the value of learning something she is unlikely to need is a challenge for me.
Of course, I get the same questions from students in my college courses and workshops. They say they will never write in their careers, so learning to write is a waste of time. Based on my experience with professionals in a wide range of careers, I know this isn’t exactly true. There are a few careers that don’t require writing, but for professionals who want to advance to higher levels of management and success, writing is vital, whether they are in the medical field, finance, technology, science, or the service industry.
Even more important, though, is the fact that learning to write shapes the way people think, and it can have enormous impact on critical thinking and decision-making skills. Writing creates analytical skills when writers break down the many aspects of their topics, see how they function separately and together, and look for patterns and gaps. Writing develops the ability to synthesize information when writers gather materials from multiple sources and perspectives and draw conclusions. Writing enhances the ability to understand an audience of others and how they will think and react to information. Whether or not a student ever writes a single email or report, these vital skills will help them understand our political, economic and interpersonal worlds and make better decisions and better lives.
Is the same true of math? Of course, math requires close attention to details and adherence to established principals and procedures. It enhances an understanding of our physical world and the relationships among factors. Doing a math problem forces a student to slow down and focus on each element and its relationship to others. These are all vital skills; it just remains for me to convince my daughter of this in the same way I have to prove the value of writing to my college students.