Bolts, Baking, and the Liberal Arts with Mr. O’Donnell

Math teacher Kieran O’Donnell on practical learning and the liberal arts:  

I have heard many things from students, but this stood out to me as rather insightful: “I can’t buy a house. I know nothing of student debt, and I can’t change the tire of a car, but thank God I can graph a polynomial function!”

Many of my math students also ask the question, “When will I ever use this?” The reality is that most of them will not go on to use the various formulae or theorems that I teach them in their everyday lives. Throwing it back at them, I ask, “When was the last time throwing a ball in a hoop, getting a headshot in Halo, or knowing the evolved form of Pikachu is Riachu helped in everyday life?” Going deeper, the questions are, “When was the last time you used the fact that the battle of Thermopylae was in 480BC, or that Dante uses Paula and Francesca in the medieval Romantic tradition, in everyday life?”

When you start applying a lot of these questions to the liberal arts courses your head starts to spin, and that’s because you are missing the whole point. The key to what the liberal arts have to offer is the formation of the child’s mind and the shaping of their imagination. But on the other hand the practical can only assist that.

In an age of utility it’s important to sculpt the brain to ask the why behind the what we are doing. Even if it is something as simple and mundane as putting on a spare tire. For the Geometry students I was able to show them the importance of the opposite angle for odd-sided polygons such as the pentagon the lug nuts formed. For the PreCalculus students I was able to explain how torque increases as I move up the lever due to how the cross-product of the vectors form. These concepts will be clearer as we study them conceptually. For now, they know more of the “what?” than the “why?” When we get to these sections I will remind them of this experience and ask them to go deeper to explain that “why” to the “what,” which frankly (unless, of course, you are stranded by the side of the road) is a much better question to ask.

On a similar practical note, my younger students, who didn’t learn to change a spare tire, were learning about multiplying mixed numbers. They were struggling with using the distributive property so I thought, “Why not show them how this works with something concrete?” Or in this case, fluffy and delicious. I had them get a recipe and demonstrated that multiplying the parts separately yields the same result as multiplying the entirety. Looking forward to future lessons with these kids!

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