3 Ways to Bring the Real World to Math Class
A teacher excitedly circles the answer to a word problem on the board. “And now, tonight’s homework!”
Amidst groans and shuffling backpacks, math teachers around the world are used to hearing the ever-common battle cry of students:
“But when are we going to use this in real life?”
You work tirelessly to make lessons engaging and challenging, but without personal buy-in, students will never experience the authentic motivation required to inspire a continuous improvement of skills.
But how can you increase passionate student engagement when class time is limited and curriculum leaves little room for deviation? Here are three big ideas to try.
1. The “Real World” is Now
As adults, it’s easy to share the numerous ways math matters in real life. But to seven year olds, balancing a checkbook or calculating interest has no relevance to their present day life.
The “real world” isn’t an elusive, distant place that students will someday experience after graduation. Learners are living in the real world, and it’s important to show them that math concepts are already around them today.
Provide relevant examples of math that match your students' current surroundings. Check out these age-appropriate examples to spark ideas.
Can you count the number of trees outside the classroom window? How long do you think the playground slide is? How would you find the total number of red and blue flowers?
Take a trip outside and have students count, from sticks to rocks to bugs and birds. Younger learners can use tally marks, while older students can calculate the sum and difference of objects using their math fact knowledge. You can even connect the activity to science with a nature bookmark.
How would you divide the length of the football field into equal parts? What fraction of the dance team has curly hair? What is the area of the art canvas?
Tap into students’ increasing involvement with hobbies and sports. Open-ended homework that allows students to experiment with numbers at home and in their activities increases fun and relevancy.
Pretend you’re a math influencer on social media. Create your own 20 second video teaching the skill you practiced in last night’s homework.
Middle schoolers crave independence and choice. Infuse technology with math for bite-sized projects that connect to their digital lives.
How many hours will you need to babysit to buy those new shoes? How much longer does it take to get to your friend’s house if you walk instead of drive?
Older students enjoy increasing levels of responsibility. Help them see how math is present in their maturing life, from getting a tank of gas to selecting a college major.
2. Showcase Math in the Real World
Challenge students to be on the lookout for math examples to share and celebrate with the class.
Create a “math in real life” bulletin board. A magazine clipping of a snowboarder leads to a discussion about the mountain’s slope. Scrolling TikTok, a student takes a screenshot of a race car, excited to show his classmates how the formula for speed “showed up” in real life.
• Have students bring in examples of each new math skill learned for collaborative display. The class will use critical thinking skills to see beyond ordinary pictures to uncover the math at hand.
• Have two students share their pictures each class period to continuously connect real-life content to the day’s lesson. Older students can write word problems that align with their pictures to deepen understanding.
• Consider class-wide incentives or rewards for 100% participation to increase motivation for future units.
Create a “math jar.” Grab an empty jar and some popsicle sticks. Write locations on each stick, and draw one location at random at the start of each lesson. Engage in a five minute sharing session about how students have seen math “in action” at that particular place. Dig deeper by connecting to the current math standard you are practicing.
- Grocery store
- Sports field
- Shopping mall
- Swimming pool
- Amusement park
- Computer lab
Example: 7th graders are studying the circumference of circles. The “grocery store” popsicle stick is drawn. Question ideas: What examples of circumference could you find at the grocery store? How would you find the circumference of the lid of a peanut butter jar?
3. Celebrate Math Through Classroom Community
Make time for math discourse. Frequent conversations about math will help students build confidence, embrace mistakes through productive struggle, and collaborate with others with deeper-thinking questions.
Talk about STEM careers. Expose students to a wide variety of careers in STEM, making time to discuss some of the day-to-day job functions and steps required to pursue a particular field. Consider hosting a career day where students can hear from real-life professionals, or let students role play as real-life scientists to solve challenges using math and science.
Connect with literacy. Incorporating books with mathematicians and numbers is a great step for learners who typically don’t consider themselves “math people.” You can even invite students to write their own “math chapters” to display in a classroom library.
Create a “Math Wall of Fame.” Spotlight famous men and women in math, either on the classroom wall or digitally with a platform like Google Slides. Incorporate influential mathematicians from both the past and present, including females who made a lasting impact.
Increase math confidence
As students recognize math around them, they’ll be more inclined to try complex ideas that arise in the future. Difficult formulas and practice problems will no longer seem irrelevant if your classroom culture continuously reinforces that math is at work.
Math class can shift from being “just” math, to instead a meaningful, connection-making space to the world students are living in today.
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