It’s All About the Why, the When, and the How

Let’s face it – you and I hear far too many adults freely admit, “I’m just not very good at math.” Those who believe this about themselves most likely had school experiences that led to false beliefs about what it means to be good at math. These beliefs often result from math classes filled with number crunching, memorization, and speed drills. Such experiences do not connect to real life, and that’s the point – meaningful connections to real life are what makes math (and anything, really) both relevant and memorable.

Just the other day, I saw a frequently-posted phrase on Facebook, “I made it through another day without using algebra!” I responded, “Wait a minute…we all used algebra today without even knowing it! As for me, I went to the store and bought 2 bottles of Diet Coke and a bag of chips (please don’t judge me). I wondered if my $20 would be enough. Some quick mental math led me to realize I was just fine.”

That’s algebra!!! Only not the way we did it in school. In math class, we saw “2x + y < 20.” And rarely was it ever connected to something as relevant as, “Are 2 bottles of soda and one bag of chips less than $20?”

Math class should always address the why and the when and the how – Why does this matter? When will I ever use this? How is the going to help me?

So…what can you do to explicitly address the why, the when, and the how?

If you’re an elementary teacher, consider how your students might start a simple business, such as making and selling bead bracelets as a fund raiser. And, as a start, check out Graham Fletcher’s 3-Act Tasks.

If you’re a middle school teacher, how about using mathematical ideas to defend student positions on social issues they care about. For example, looking at which statistic is most helpful for talking about gun control: mean, median, or  mode. And, as a start, check out Robert Kaplinsky’s 3-Act Tasks.

If you’re a high school teacher, perhaps you might work alongside your colleagues teaching business or construction classes to design business models or to plan and build a “little house” for someone in need. And, as a start, check out Dan Meyer’s 3-Act Tasks.

If you’re a leader, pave the way and set an example. Provide time during staff meetings or grade-level sessions for teachers to analyze their upcoming mathematics standards and explore projects or activity sets that will allow students to directly use the math skills. Provide a list of possible projects or share the article linked below to get them started.

And everyone, check out this article, Real-World ‘rithmetic Education. It includes some fantastic ideas for genuine application – planning and building a little house for the homeless, starting a school-based bakery business, making jewelry to raise funds for hurricane victims. I’ve worked with children as young as first grade to make these kinds of entrepreneurial connections, and you can, too!

How are you making this happen in your daily work? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comment box below.

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