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The Real World: Using Math in Daily Life

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Aug 28, 2012 - by WeAreTeachers Staff
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By guest blogger Joann Wasik from TheGateway.org

"I’m not good at math."

"I hate math."

"When in life will I ever use this stuff?"

Sound familiar? Teachers in other subjects sometimes hear the same litany from students, but none so frequently as the much-maligned math teacher. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics once mused that "One of the curious aspects of our society is that it is socially acceptable to take pride in not being good in mathematics." While I don’t think that most students take pride in being less than proficient in math, the NCTM statement still rings true for many adults that I know. Could it be time for a cultural shift in attitude?

It's particularly difficult for students to see the relevance of math beyond the classroom. While many students may never need to know how to calculate slope problems later in life, they’ve still learned valuable problem-solving skills. The opportunity to use math on a daily basis, too, is all around us. We need to be able to calculate sales tax, discern surface area in order to paint a room or carpet a floor, and figure percentages for service tips. For many students, math, when not taught in a real-world context, loses all meaning and becomes a jumble of random rules and skills.

Thankfully, teachers and math sites are increasingly incorporating real-life scenarios into math problems so that the math concepts become a little less abstract to students. Actress Danica McKellar, best known for her roles on The Wonder Years and The Office, has written several books aimed at girls such as Kiss My Math and Math Doesn't Suck that include examples of when certain types of math problems would apply in daily life. Generally speaking, children also do not begin to think abstractly until adolescence (ages 12-18), and find it easier to learn math concepts in more concrete terms rooted in everyday life. Teaching math using real-world contexts, then, may well result in more light bulbs igniting over student heads.

This week I’m featuring three real world math resources for a variety of grade levels. Be sure to check out Peggy's companion column (linked below), where she discusses how to incorporate real world math lessons into your class in greater detail.

Payday
Subjects: Economics, Math (Measurement)
Grade: 4-5
How much do a school teacher & LeBron James make in a year? In this lesson students explore how much people earn each year, each day, every hour, and minute. For example, how long would a teacher have to work to earn to earn what LeBron James does in a year, and is there a difference between how much someone makes and how much they're worth? I love how this lesson presents terrific visuals to illustrate monetary comparisons, and that the lesson also compares what Tiger Woods, Snooki, the President of the United States, and a firefighter typically make in a year. This lesson is a product of Mathalicious, which designs math lessons for grades 4 and up that focus on real-world topics that students care about, from sports to technology to health & wellness. While most lessons require a fee to access, there are some free lessons (like this one) on the site.

Money Makes the World Go Around: Exchange Rates
Subjects: Math, Geography
Grade: 6-8
Money comes in many forms around the world. Crisscrossing across the Google Earth globe, students connect the monetary units to the related country in a series of exchange rate problems. Each challenge is presented as a word problem which includes a unit rate. I like that this lesson can be customized so that students can select countries that are of interest to them. This lesson would also be a terrific addition to a social studies geography unit, and includes extension activities if the teacher or students have access to foreign currency. This lesson was produced by Real World Math, a blog created by Thomas J. Petra for teachers who want to extend the concepts of the math curriculum beyond textbooks. In addition to lesson plans, Real World Math also offers a forum for educators to collaborate, respond to, and submit lesson ideas.

7 Billion
Subjects: Math (Functions)
Grade: 9-12
Scientists estimate that on Halloween 2011 the global population reached 7 billion. This lesson explores how many people the Earth is adding and losing each minute, and determines the [exponential] growth rate. Students will also predict what the world population will be in the future, and what life will be like with more and more people. As with the previous lesson listed, this resource would make a terrific addition to a geography or social studies unit. This lesson is a product of Mathalicious, which designs math lessons for grades 4 and up that focus on real-world topics that students care about, from sports to technology to health & wellness. While most lessons require a fee to access, there are some free lessons (like this one) on the site.

Resources mentioned in this post: 

Peggy's companion column: 

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