Sort-of-Real-World Math

Dan Meyer’s latest post got me thinking about what seems to motivate students as far as “real-world-ness” goes.  What’s timely about this post is, I think some things my students did in class today go along well with reflecting upon, as Dan puts it, “theories of engagement”.  How “real-world” does the math have to be to be worthwhile to kids?

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Take my algebra students, for example.  Today’s objective was to “Solve Linear Systems Using Substitution.”  I started class with a little novelty and my students ate it for lunch.  In small groups and before any attempt at instruction on my part, students solved “The Leg Problem” by guessing-and-checking, drawing all sorts of interesting pictures, or by writing an equation that would later end up being half of our system – namely, something like 2x + 4y = 74 where x represents the number of chickens and y represents the number of cows.  What’s fun for me is showing them the problem statement, which is novel but certainly not a “real-world scenario”, yet no student has EVER complained.  They’re motivated enough to want to see this thing through to a solution.  They rise to the challenge, start talking mathematics, and can’t wait to share and present their methods to their peers.  Check out two work samples below.

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My pre-algebra students started today’s lesson with a graphic I found on Facebook.  It made an immediate impression.  Our objective – “Finding the Percent of Change”.

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Before talking about how to calculate a percent of change, I asked students to guess what they thought the percent increase was in the scenario.  Their guesses are shown below.

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We veered from the scenario and did some typical textbook examples… and once they got the hang of it, they were all trying to sneak back and solve the t-shirt problem.  One by one, they couldn’t contain their reactions as they realized we were talking about around a 900% increase.  By the time *I* was “ready to return to the t-shirt problem”, they were busting at the seams.  I love acting like I didn’t know what they had been doing… I love that they couldn’t resist returning to the t-shirt problem to test their guesses.  Why was it so irresistible?  Maybe because it truly was “real-world” to them.  Maybe it was the urge to find out just how great or how horrible their individual estimates were at the start.

All I know is, when it comes to “theories of engagement” it’s not an exact science… but when you reach that point in a lesson where the mathematics becomes irresistible, you’re in a good place.  🙂

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One Response to Sort-of-Real-World Math

  1. Pingback: In Defense of the Real World | emergent math

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