Starting With The Real World

At the end of the day today, I asked my students a question that Matthew Oldridge, a wonderful teacher in Peel, was asking his students not that long ago: “What is math?” I did this because I wanted students to see the connections between our Playdough Store that “closed” today and math learning. I think it’s important for students to reflect on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and I thought that this brainstorming would help with that.

While this brainstorming session did help with that, it was also very eye-opening to me for another reason. I quickly realized that even in Grade 1, students seem to have an almost “textbook” understanding of math. Not one student made a real world connection to math, and even when giving me examples of skills (e.g., patterning), they only used ones that would either involve manipulatives or previous worksheet experiences. Students see math as a subject at school, but they don’t have a good understanding of why math matters so much. I hope to change this!

After reading through the many tweets in this conversation and doing some thinking on my way home from school, I wonder if the way to change this is to start with the real world. Right now, I find myself beginning with introducing a skill (e.g., patterning) and allowing for exploration that tends to involve the use of manipulatives and loose parts. Then I try to make the link to the real world with our problem. I wonder though if the students are still focused on the familiar tools and not on the application of math. Maybe we need to give them a chance to really see and experience the math that happens in the every day.

Next week, we’re focusing on counting (forwards and backwards) and number recognition. I think that I need some real world provocations to begin. I’m already thinking about cookbooks, beats in a song, appointment slots for a business, deliveries of materials for construction, distribution of flyers in teachers’ mailboxes at school, and money for a store (particularly nickels and dimes to help with counting by 5’s and 10’s). Even as I’m writing this post, more ideas are coming to mind. I wonder if by exploring these provocations and giving a real purpose for the math learning if students would start to see math as more than just something we learn each day at school. If we could couple this real world math with Patricia Newman‘s bulletin board idea, I see the potential for a change in the appreciation and meaningfulness of math.

2014-09-18_19-59-56Don’t get me wrong: I think that it’s important that students learn skills, but when there is not a meaningful context, I question the potential for deeper understanding. What do you think? How do you help students see math as more than just a school subject? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!


8 thoughts on “Starting With The Real World

  1. Hi Aviva, finally I have a minute to catch up to commenting on the blog #comcon. Provoking and relating to real life experiences so important for students to build the relationship. Math with music is quite important, math with the arts, students’ address, parents license plates, comparing their address digits, phone numbers. I am having fun this week as students begin to understand what is a good task and how a task is interdisciplinary.

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Rola! I am in need of doing some additional commenting this weekend too. I’ve been a little behind on reading blog posts these last couple of days.

      I love your suggestions! You’re giving me new ideas to consider. Yes, this interdisciplinary approach is so important. I love what you’re doing in your classroom to try and focus on this as well.


  2. I find money and time to be very motivating real world connections to learning the use of math 🙂 Allowance day is definitely more drawn out than it needs to be! Who borrowed how much from what sibling? What did they spend their money on during the week? What are they saving up for and how long will it take to reach their goals at their current rate of saving?
    Also one book my kids have loved since kindergarden is One Grain of Rice by Demi.

    • Thanks for the comment and idea, Lucy! I don’t know if any of my students get an allowance (at least not at this age), but money could be a very motivating topic. I do love the ONE GRAIN OF RICE book, and its connection to Social Justice issues as well. There is also a great website to explore on this same topic. I may just have to search it out.

      Thanks again!

  3. What about going on a math hunt around the community or even just around the class and school. Might open their minds a little more when they have to look at things that don’t necessarily have numbers.

    • Thanks for the idea! I wonder if the students can do some looking and keep some questions in mind as they go on the Terry Fox Run this week. Then we can add to our “What is Math?” chart, and hopefully the students will have some new thoughts to share.


  4. Hi Aviva,
    As a math teacher, I’m constantly looking for real-world applications or places to find math! I wonder if students – young students in particular – have trouble “seeing” math in everyday life because a lot of everyday math happens silently: the cashier making change doesn’t subtract totals out loud, the parent doesn’t multiply aloud to double a recipe, a person figuring out how long it would take to drive somewhere doesn’t take out a scratchpad and jot numbers down, and the like… there’s a lot of every day math we’ve learned to do mentally, and don’t make a point of demonstrating our ability out loud or drawing attention to the fact that we *are* doing math. I know that math isn’t only about numbers (and you can argue all of these down to pattern recognition), but numbers are an obvious mathematical tool. And if the students don’t see/hear the numbers, they may not recognize that math is being done right in front of them.

    Personal context is important too. In my grade 12 class, I decided to start the year with a personal finance project, since almost all the students are coming back to school after working a summer job and making money. In addition (no pun intended!) they are all planning for college next year. The connection to money, finances, and the math involved is much more apparent (I hope!) as it has become more personal for them. If I was to do the same unit with grade 10 students, however, the connection would be lost.

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather! You make an important point here. Since the students can’t necessarily see the math (since it’s done “silently”), I need to help them explicitly label it. I addressed this idea in my latest blog post:

      The personal context piece is so important too. I find this a little harder with Grade 1’s. Students may use some of the math skills in the real world (e.g., counting to a specific number while playing hide-and-seek), but not necessarily to the number that they need to according to the curriculum expectations. I guess I’m trying to combine this context with some authentic problems that are at least connected to their interests (e.g., The Playdough Store). If you have any other suggestions, please let me know. I’d love to hear them.


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