Do the Math

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By Andy Uyboco

Freethinking Me

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I ALMOST titled this piece, "Lessons from Factoring Quadratic Square Trinomials" but I realized that would scare off most people from the start, so I opted for a friendlier, 3-word monosyllabic title. Yet I know the word "math" would still make some people wary, though in my opinion, you should be more wary of the news that Kris Aquino is running for vice president and that Boy Abunda is running for senator.

I have nothing personal against these people as they have every right to run for office. My issue is with the vast majority of voters who would support candidates simply on the basis of their popularity and name-recognition instead of their qualifications.

Don't you think we should have learned our lesson by now?

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Anyway, I digress. Let's go back to math.

My teenage daughter asked me for help last night with her algebra lesson involving factoring quadratic square trinomials (their book doesn't call it that -- probably to make it sound less scary). As I was explaining the method, she said, "Tell me, what use does this have in real life?"
What she doesn't know is that, as a former math teacher, I have had dozens of students ask me that very same question over the years -- and so instead of fumbling around trying to think of an answer, I was ready with one.

I replied, "None."

She rolled her eyes at this, but I continued, "Except perhaps, when you have kids of your own, then you would be able to explain this lesson to them."

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

I said, "Hey, do you know how long it took me to understand quadratic equations? I learned this stuff when I was in first year high school but I never really understood it until the end of second year. And it was only in fourth year when I could claim mastery over it. The process seemed so complicated because no one could explain it to me in simple terms."

So while that may not be a direct application of the concept, it is still useful in terms of being able to explain clearly to your child what it's all about, instead of shrugging your shoulders and just leaving it to the teacher or the tutor. It is a way to inject life lessons and have parent-child interaction while helping her with homework, which is valuable in so many ways.

As we went along, I was able to teach her systematic trial-and-error, the process of elimination, and logical thinking. I showed her some of the tricks teachers like to pull -- like giving problems which are not factorable and watching students rack their brains trying to factor it (yes I admit to doing this as a teacher, guilty as charged). Then I mentioned that there may not be many direct applications of this particular lesson in "real life" but the thinking skills she develops because of it can be applied to many other aspects of life.

This concept is very much like athletes performing warm-up and strengthening exercises to prepare for their game. They do stretches, jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups and so on. Why do they do those? Do they actually use any of those in a real game? Does a basketball player suddenly lie down on the floor to do a couple of sit-ups after a dunk? Does a volleyball player do jumping jacks after spiking the ball? No. But those exercises help them loosen their joints and make them ready and limber to perform moves they will actually use in the game.

In the same way, much of algebra is not really directly applicable to most students' "real" lives after they graduate (it's funny how we always talk of "real" life as life after college -- as if the life spent in school were fake -- but I digress again). What is important though is that they develop the thinking skill that comes with doing math and learn to apply it in other situations, when they're solving problems (not just math problems), making difficult decisions, or creating strategic plans.
So there, I concede the point that math is not really useful. But that doesn't mean it's useless.

Think about it.

*****

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on July 11, 2014.

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