Math and the Real World

Dan Meyer on Real-World Math.

It’s a puzzle. The majority of real-world contexts I bring in to class seem to flop–or, more accurately, they flop for a majority of my students (probably a large majority). I see several variants on “I’m not interested”–

  • I don’t want to do (x job where question is relevant)
  • That’s why we have calculators
  • That sounds contrived
  • I don’t care about the answer to that question

Meanwhile, I second guess myself for trying to force the context. Jo Boaler and Dan Meyer would chide my pseudo-context here–I think a part of my students’ lack of engagement comes from being saturated with “real world” problems that aren’t real world. I think of this passage from Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament:

Attempts to present mathematics as relevant to daily life inevitably appear forced and
contrived: “You see kids, if you know algebra then you can figure out how old Maria is if we
know that she is two years older than twice her age seven years ago!” (As if anyone would ever
have access to that ridiculous kind of information, and not her age.) Algebra is not about daily
life, it’s about numbers and symmetry— and this is a valid pursuit in and of itself:

Suppose I am given the sum and difference of two numbers. How
can I figure out what the numbers are themselves?

Here is a simple and elegant question, and it requires no effort to be made appealing. The
ancient Babylonians enjoyed working on such problems, and so do our students. (And I hope
you will enjoy thinking about it too!) We don’t need to bend over backwards to give
mathematics relevance. It has relevance in the same way that any art does: that of being a
meaningful human experience.

I worry that I ask too many questions like the one above. Pseudo-context is worse than no context at all. I think most kids understand, at least intuitively, that math is an exercise in logical thinking and problem solving, not that struggling with fractions means they’ll be unemployable. I have plenty of college educated, happily educated friends who struggle with fractions. What is the growth mindset message we want to be sending to our students–that they have to know this for x and y and z, so learn it now or else you’ll fall behind; or this is a worthwhile question that asks you to think in a new way. Let’s figure it out.

I’m rambling at this point, and mostly rambling against real world application, which isn’t where I meant to go–I love Dan Meyer’s 3-act tasks and 101 questions and they lean heavily on real world questions. I think the bridge there for me is that they don’t pretend that their application is meaningful and necessary in every one of our students’ lives. There are just questions in the world that are worth answering, because they are interesting and engaging and push us to learn new things. And that is what math should be about.

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