The First Question

#CaEdChat is going on right now. I’m no doubt missing dozens of witty, hastily-typed tweets to type this, but I think it’s important.

Tonight, #CaEdChat is discussing questions, and I heard this one kicked around a lot, and I want to share my response to it.


This isn’t about the question that gets teachers the most excited. It’s also not the boringest question we get all year.


It’s not the easiest question to answer, nor is it the hardest (though many teachers seem to think it is).


It’s the question that new teachers fear, but veteran teachers still wince when we hear it.

Mens Category 105kg

This question is one that drove us to become teachers in the first place, and it’s still being asked now, decades after we asked it to our teachers, and our children and grandchildren will ask their teachers:

Why do we need to know this?

I usually get this question about 3 weeks into the year. If not, I pull it out with the first really abstract Math topic that we get. This year it was Classifying Real Numbers.

I got through the meat of the lesson and said,

Okay, put down your pencils, fold your hands and look at me. You’re probably wondering by now when you will use this in real life, yes? I’m going to tell you.

You won’t.

Odds are that most of you will go to jobs where you don’t need to do this [point to the board] in your career. However, it’s still important. Here’s why:


When I was in college, I used the same workout room as the football players. One day, I was lifting weights across from this huge guy. He picked up these massive weights and did this:


I was surprised, so I asked him, “Bro. Why are you doing that? Shouldn’t you practice sprints or throwing a football or something you’ll actually use?”

He responded, “Dude-ski, I may not use this motion in the game, but I use this muscle in the game, fo shizzle*.”

"I'm so glad I did those calf raises!"
“I’m so glad I did those calf raises!”

Students, the math you learn in this class will work out your brain in ways that you will use. You will likely never need to classify real numbers in your profession, but because you worked out your brain, you’ll be smarter. You’ll be a better boyfriend, girlfriend, boss, employee, and friend.

Is that a fair answer?

So far, that answer has satisfied every class in my teaching career.

~Matt “Honest Abe” Vaudrey

*If the slang terms wasn’t clue enough on the decade when I was in college, here’s a picture of me and my roommates.

8 thoughts on “The First Question”

  1. GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! Response. I often use game and sports analogies in my teaching. The kids “get it” when it relates to a game or a sport.

  2. I had an AP teacher that she wanted to throw a student out of her class for asking that question. She said, “That is not an AP classroom question.” Thanks for verbalizing a great response to that question with a great analogy. The students need more motivation to learn more at all levels.

  3. Awesome. I have a very similar arrow in my quiver for that question: “That’s like being on a Stairmaster machine and asking, ‘When am I ever going to have to climb an infinite flight of stairs?'”

  4. Matt
    I had an Ed Prof tell us once that the surest way to starve was to stand on a corner with a sign that says “Will solve quadratics for food”
    I share that and a version of your answer routinely. I say it this way –
    Every time you solve a new problem you become a better problem solver. In most ‘real-life’ situations, you are presented with information BUT NO SOLUTIONS MANUAL and you have to figure out a solution technique yourself. Whether you are analyzing poetry, learning about genetics, conjugating a verb, or analyzing the graph of a polynomial function every time you master a new challenge you increase your chance of mastering the next one. I firmly believe this is true and I hope that many of my students are swayed to this view.

  5. I tell the students that in my class we learn to think. We learn to look at a problem and decide what we know about it, how to start it and if the answer we find makes sense for that problem. We learn to problem solve

    then i look for that student who is older, more physically mature or who has taken the class before and get their attention. i put him (preferably) on the spot and ask “do you have a girlfriend? If so, could you please tell these younger students how important problem solving is in a relationship?…no wait, never mind, but trust me knowing how to quickly look at a problem and think of a solution is not a skill anyone ever regrets having developed’

    said properly with a smile convinces them every time. we laugh and I don’t usually ever get the question a second time from the same group.

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