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Making Math Relevant to Middle and High School Students

Sep 24, 2021 11:46:28 AM / by Louise El Yaafouri

Agile Mind September Blog Article

Need To Know:

  • One indicator of high-powered math curriculum and instruction is the presence of real-life connections. 
  • Unfortunately, not all real-life connections are relevant or relatable. 
  • We can increase growth in mathematics by centering students’ lived experiences and daily realities as the basis for math connections.

A Closer Look:

“It’s the question math teachers know will come up at some point- When am I going to use this???” This scenario, spelled out by Penn State College of Education faculty Caroline Brayer Ebby and Janine Remillard, is familiar to many of us. “The best answer: how about right now?

Meaningful math is relevant to our lived experiences. As educators, we’ve been a part of the persistent shift to integrate more true-to-life math examples. Today, this aim shows up in virtually every aspect of math instruction, from learning standards to curriculum design to teaching practice.

“But what happens when the context of problems isn’t relatable?” That’s the central question of Ebby and Remillard’s work. The team noticed how kids in a Philadelphia classroom struggled to make sense of the real-life examples in their math curriculum. So, they posed an important question: “Instead of asking students to solve a problem built around renting motorbikes on a luxury vacation, why not tap into their daily experiences?”

Curriculum companies are helping teachers navigate this dilemma by creating content that better aligns with students' real-life experiences. One example of this is from a leading mathematics content provider, Agile Mind, who knows the power of relevant and relatable math-to-life connections. Their blended learning curriculum drives engagement, persistence, and achievement by connecting math and science concepts to concrete experiences to which students can relate. Agile Mind’s success in growing middle and high school mathematicians is due, in part, to their four step process. Launch, the first step in that process, looks like this:

  • Teachers engage students with real-world scenarios that connect to their daily realities and build on their previous learning. 
  • Students consider new concepts through scenarios that are relevant to them.
This sort of intentionality- drawing on and connecting to kids’ authentic lived experiences- can drive math engagement and success.  Researchers claim that “when real-world connections are made, students have an increased motivation and interest in mathematics, as well as increased attitudes towards mathematics.” (Wuolle, 2015).  Growth may also be seen in the areas of conceptualization, reasoning, problem-solving skills, and self-confidence. (Karakoc & Alacaci, 2015). Not to mention, students with practice making these types of connections are better poised to transfer their math skill sets into the real world.

Mathematical knowledge and reasoning are skills that we use almost every day.  However, many of us aren’t aware of all of the ways we consciously or subconsciously use them. For students, developing a heightened awareness of patterns and number relationships as they occur in day-to-day life can be a game-changer. It can make learning more engaging and purposeful. And, for youth who struggle with math anxiety, it can help to bolster math confidence and self-efficacy.

How can we encourage students to recognize patterns, number relationships, and other examples of "living" math? Ebby and Remillard, as an example, have implemented “lessons to determine the best cell phone plan, understand who really makes money on the lottery, and determine travel times and distances for trolley routes.”  There are plenty of other ways students can learn to observe math at work in the world around them. They might explore how math exists or “sneaks” into:  

Adaptable examples, like those highlighted by Penn State, include “lessons to determine the best cell phone plan, understand who really makes money on the lottery, and determine travel times and distances for trolley routes.” We might also engage youth in considering, for example, how math “sneaks” into:  

  • reading scale on Google Maps 
  • understanding the day’s windchill advisory
  • making a basket from the free throw line (or a paper ball into the trash can!)
  • scheduling a day’s events
  • splicing a video for TikTok upload
  • reading music
  • understanding football statistics
  • budgeting for a new iPhone

Learners need to see mathematical concepts come alive in ways that connect to their daily realities. As one lesson idea, try having learners add these discoveries to a living document. In the introduction and conclusion of every new concept under investigation, ask the students how this math could be used in everyday life, and add to your growing document. Grow this document over the years, and share the relevance that students found to each math concept over time. Use this bank of ideas for class discussion, lesson design, and as the basis for assessment questions. When learners see the relevance, they are better able to make sense of numbers and patterns in their everyday world, and the results are significant engagement and increased mathematics success.

Topics: Secondary Education, Mathematics

Louise El Yaafouri

Written by Louise El Yaafouri

Louise El Yaafouri is a Recent Arriver & Cultural Competency Consultant at DiversifiED Consulting. She provides professional development and curriculum design in the areas of Emergent Multilingual education, trauma-informed practice, culturally responsive pedagogy, and equity/inclusion work. Louise has authored a wide range of ed-related books and articles, including the forthcoming Restoring Students’ Innate Power: Trauma-Responsive Strategies for Teaching Multilingual Newcomers (ASCD press). Louise lives between Denver, Colorado and Saida, Lebanon with her husband and sons Noor and Joud.