Connecting Math to the Real World in Ways That Engage Students

Math has a bad reputation in school. It’s often viewed as a daunting class full of complex equations and unknown signs. Learning math concepts can feel like cracking a secret code — but only some students solve the riddle while others are left out of the hidden message.

One of the best ways to engage students in math is to give them opportunities to apply it. This goes beyond making math interesting. It makes math useful. It makes math a tool students can carry with them and wield confidently when the time comes.

Here are a few ways to better integrate math into the lives of your students and develop a love for the concepts, signs, symbols, and ideas you teach.

Pull In the Big Picture Uses of Math Concepts

The goal of incorporating math into real-world concepts is to build on the concept of hands-on math. Students no longer learn vague concepts that might help them in financial careers. Instead, they face problems head-on and use math to solve them. This requires a complete rethinking of how we approach math.

“What if we taught art the way that we teach math?” asks financial journalist Amy Fontinelle. “Instead of allowing students to paint, they would learn color theory, the ins and outs of different paintbrushes and types of paint, and the names and accomplishments of a few great—but dead—artists. They would learn how to paint by numbers in high school, but they would never be encouraged to express themselves through painting on a blank canvas.”

This is how students are often taught math. Instead of fostering a love of pattern-making and curiosity about numbers, students focus on rote memorization and theory.

Tying math to the real world can be as simple as watching the news.

“In the era of ‘Fake News’ the ability to study published data to evaluate potential bias or inaccuracies is a terrific conversation starter regarding data manipulation in journalism and the media,” writes Brittany Simmons at technology company EverFi.

At its core, math is a process to consume information easily and share information with others. It’s about taking a lot of numbers and communicating them clearly. This isn’t just algebra, it’s also data literacy.

“Data literacy is being able to take all of the information that we have available to us and process it,” writes educational consultant Rachelle Dené Poth. “We first consume the information, analyze it, use it to better understand something or to solve a problem, and then apply it in other ways. Data visualization is also important as we need to represent the information in a way that makes sense.”

Regardless of where your students go after they leave the classroom, data literacy and communication will be part of their lives.

Happy schoolboy using VR glasses; math real-world use concept

Develop Projects That Apply Multiple Lessons

If you are looking to reinforce the value of the concepts you need to cover — in addition to refreshing students on the concepts themselves — consider developing projects and lessons that incorporate multiple ideas. This is also a useful way to help students catch up who might be behind.

“Most math teachers use elements of project-based learning in their daily instruction,” write Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov, high school math teachers and co-authors of “The Math Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Strategies to Support Your Students.”

“In all subjects, including math, students learn how to gather evidence and recognize patterns in order to make a conclusion,” they explain. “The main difference between math and other subjects is that we primarily use numbers, variables, and diagrams as our artifacts.”

One way to do this is to change how you assign homework or review the work of your students. For example, the team at Model Teaching encourages teachers to develop open-ended math problems, where there are multiple correct answers. You can create these by providing answers and asking students to work backward to create the problems. You can also create problems with multiple elements with the student choosing which elements to use. The goal is to focus on the process of problem-solving rather than just drilling answers.

Additionally, you can look for ways to get students talking and verbally problem-solving in their classroom activities. Anthony Persico, founder and CEO at Mashup Math, shares the concept of Think-Notice-Wonder (TNW), where students start sentences with I think, I notice, and I wonder. With a TNW approach, kids are challenged to explore the world around them and come up with conclusions, which they can then apply to their daily lives.

Persico uses the example of the price of soda and popcorn at the movie theater. Which sizes do students think have the most value? What do students notice about the size and price changes? What questions do they have about the pricing — and how can they use math to solve them? This is a great way to get students talking and approaching math in a new light.

student hands assemble a circuit board

Tie Problems to Student Interests

There are times when frustrated math teachers will do just about anything to make students care about the material. One option is to find what your students love and build lessons around these ideas.

“When I was teaching small groups, I had 3 students who needed a little extra incentive to stay engaged,” writes former math teacher Noelle Pickering. “They loved soccer, so we made everything soccer related. As they got problems correct, they scored ‘goals,’ counters were soccer balls, and all word problems were changed on the spot to be soccer themed.”

The team at Experiential Learning Depot listed ways to get to know the interests of your students. You can send out a survey at the start of the year to learn what sports, movies, hobbies and foods your students like. You can have brainstorming sessions in the classroom about what students like to do.

All of this gives you a jumping-off point for your lessons to create engaging content that your students care about. These surveys and activities are also beneficial if you have a large class or several classes with hundreds of students. You might not have time to connect personally with each one.

The good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard to tie math to student interests — even moving well beyond developing homework problems about counting soccer balls and measuring the area of a football field.

“Math has incalculable value for our real life,” writes Ainhoa Arranz at STEM learning and testing platform SOWISO. “We need to measure proportions when cooking, splitting the bill after having dinner with friends, doing groceries, estimating how likely your team is to win a competition, etc. Math enhances our capacity to deal with these kinds of day-to-day challenges.”

When students are excited about something, they will care about the problems presented to them and the work involved to solve those problems. The same concept applies to adults who want to finish a house project or learn a new hobby.

“In these situations attending to precision really matters,” says Patricia Dickenson, associate professor of teacher education at National University. “Seldomly do we need to be reminded to ‘check your answer’ when math is personal.”

Work With Teachers Across Other Departments

If you want math to be part of a holistic approach to learning, then you may need to be the first person to reach across the hallway and connect with other departments. You may need to help draw the connections from one course to the next.

“If we link mathematics to other subjects in the curriculum, we show our students that mathematics doesn’t stand alone,” writes the team at Mathletics. “It’s part of an integrated system of knowledge that helps us to understand the world.”

They use the example of an English teacher and math teacher working together on a lesson plan about picture books. The math teacher taught about grid systems and picture placement, while the English teacher discussed how these placement choices affected how the reader perceived the story. The goal is to make math part of life, not something kids suffer through in school.

young schoolgirl doing math homework; math real-world use concept

Connecting Math to the Real World Can Reshape Curriculums

For teachers, connecting math to science concepts or current events or student hobbies is often a strategy to make kids excited about the concepts they need to learn. However, these steps can have large-scale applications for how school districts approach math education. You aren’t just developing fun projects and games, you are changing how students process information.

“One reason reformers have advocated changes in how math is structured is because of the historic problems with math instruction itself: rote calculations, drill and practice ad nauseum, endless reams of worksheets, and a fetish for ‘the right answer,’” writes education activist Bob Peterson, in his seminal piece at Rethinking Schools. “These have contributed to ‘number numbness’ among students, and ultimately among the general population when students become adults.”

Peterson explains that number numbness comes from how math is taught in school. It is kept separate from other courses and from the daily lives of students. Learners have no connection to it, other than as a task they need to complete in order to advance their education. This view of math carries into high school.

“An unacceptably high number of students fail algebra courses, which focus students on outdated methods and calculations performed by hand,” write Jo Boaler and Rob Gould, professor of mathematics education at Stanford and professor of statistics at UCLA, respectively. “A different approach to teaching mathematics is needed—one that develops data literacy for all students.”

Boaler and Gould explain that many students engage in a “race to calculus” as they go through middle and high school. They miss other math classes in middle school and are pushed to work hard in order to take calculus classes in high school. The students who make it to calculus are “disproportionately white and male,” the authors note – and most high school students have to retake it in college anyway.

Boaler and Gould believe this is an unhealthy, inequitable and ineffective way to establish a mathematical foundation of knowledge for students. The students that don’t win the race are less likely to enter STEM-based careers. They are less likely to view math concepts positively. They are more likely to pass this math aversion on to the next generation.

“A parental antipathy for math may be one reason why the playing field is often uneven when children first come to kindergarten,” explains Karen D’Souza, senior writer at EdSource. “Some already have a sense of what math means and how it functions in the world while others lack a basic understanding of numbers. That gap only gets harder to close as time goes on.”

It’s a lot to put on teachers to say their math lessons will influence both the lives of their students and their students’ future children. However, there is some truth to this idea. The way math is taught has isolated students for generations. While a few students learn how to love and apply math, many are put off by the rote memorization and drive to always be right.

Look for ways for your students to play with math and get creative with it. Show them the possibilities of these concepts, not just the requirements.

Images by: milkos/©, milkos/©, Jeswin Thomas, Greg Rosenke