WAMU Commentary: Keeping Math Real

First broadcast on WAMU 88.5, August 22, 2011. Click here to listen.

In the coming weeks millions of students around the country will head back to school. They’ll buy spiral notebooks and number two pencils. They’ll get locker combinations and class schedules. And they’ll sit in math class, open their textbooks and encounter something like this:

8 is to 3 as x is to 12. What’s x?, or
24 is 76% of what number?

According to a recent Raytheon survey, 61 percent of middle school students say they'd rather take out the garbage than do their math homework. And can you blame them?

Too many students learn math as a bunch of random skills, and don’t have a chance to apply them to the real world. They don't know what math means or when they'll ever use it. Imagine a woodworking class where you learn how to use a hammer but never build anything, an English class where you diagram sentences but never have a conversation. That would be ridiculous, yet it’s exactly what happens in math classes every day.

This type of teaching is ineffective. It bores students and sets teachers up to fail. It's also dishonest, because math is not just a bunch of skills that exist in a textbook. In fact, skills are a small part of what math really is: a way of thinking about the world.

  • What are the odds of finding life on other planets? To answer that, we need to multiply fractions.
  • Do people with small feet pay more for shoes, and should Nike charge by weight? We can use unit rates & proportions for that.
  • How far would you have to run to burn off an Extra Value Meal? That’s order of operations.

Among math educators, there's often a debate between skills and applications. That's a false choice. We don't have to choose between making math rigorous and making it interesting. When we contextualize math through real-world examples, students are engaged and perform better. Meanwhile, teachers feel more confident and are more effective.

And there's another benefit. When students use math to explore game shows and marketing, healthy eating and exercise, they learn how the world works. They become curious and more discerning. They don’t just become better mathematicians. They become more informed citizens.

Under 'No Child Left Behind,' 62 percent of public schools in Virginia have fallen short of testing goals. In D.C., 87 percent have. Much of this is because of math: students see no reason to learn it, so they don’t. We can fix that. We can fundamentally transform what it means to teach and learn math in this country, and accomplish so much more in the process. All we have to do is keep it real.

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