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the cock-eyed reality of modern math instruction
a modest proposal for teaching real-life math
by margot carmichael lester

I was intrigued by the headline “It's Not Every Day Your Life Depends on the Answer to a Math Problem”.

I was skeptical because I think our lives OFTEN depend on the answers to math problems. But as I read, I realized the story was about using real-life situations to teach math. Great, I thought.

I hoped the story would be about helping our nation’s school kids discover and solve meaningful math problems that crop up in their every day lives. You know, like how much money I need for a week of rides on the cross-town bus or how much longer till the next time I have to take my asthma medication.

So imagine my disappointment when I stepped out of my fantasy and back into the cock-eyed reality of present-day instructional methods.

According to the news release, “Eighth-graders at middle schools across Dallas-Fort Worth are finding out just what would happen if they get the answer wrong to a math problem that computes how much fuel a pilot should put into an airplane.”

Riiiight. Because that happens all the time to regular people. I fly a lot for my work and even after logging 248,000 domestic air miles in 18 months, not once was I faced with having to figure out how much fuel we needed to get from point A to point B.

Instead, my travel days are filled with practical math challenges like what time should I leave for the airport, allowing for traffic, security check-points and a last-minute stop at the newsstand? Do I have time to take a quick bathroom break between flights? Which is cheaper in the long run, bringing the rental car back empty, buying a tank of gas or letting the the company do it for me?

My point is, if we want to our kids to make real progress in math, let’s give them real math to work with. Instead of the fantastical, and ultimately irrelevant, task of figuring out how much gas a plane needs, let’s use actual problems from kids’ every day lives.

This isn't hard to do if we can get away from the traditional idea that textbook publishers are the only people capable of creating math problems. Real mathematicians in the real world identify and solve their own problems based on relevant issues that are meaningful to them. Doesn't it make sense to teach kids to do the same? Why not spend time teaching kids to come up with their own math problems and solutions based on situations they encounter in their own lives?

We could start with lessons about where math shows up in their world, help them identify mathematically rich categories of experience (sports, games, time, construction, measurement, sewing, cooking, money, etc.), and then challenge them to come up with their own problems in each category. Each student could come up with their own problems matched to their abilities and experience. In many cases, these problems would be significantly more complex than the ones publishers provide. Best of all, kids would work harder to solve them because they would be personally invested in getting the right result.

If we helped kids see how much math exists in their own real lives, they'd start paying more attention to all the math around them. All of a sudden, math wouldn't be simply some school subject they had to devote an hour to each day. Kids would develop mathematical awareness, they'd begin to see that math is all around them, in all facets of their lives. And from this vantage point, they'd discover the power of mathematics and the value of studying it in earnest.

Everyone knows that authentic instruction based on students' real lives is far more effective at developing lasting skills than traditional instructional where every kid does the same problem the same way at the same time. Yet so little real-life math ever shows up in our classrooms. If only it did, we might actually grow more students with the skills and desire to become real-life pilots and engineers. If only.


Margot’s a content strategist and freelance journalist. She consults with and/or writes for businesses large and small, and new and traditional media. She’s also the author of four books, including Be a Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers -- co-written with her husband, Steve Peha -- won the 2007 Independent Publishers Association gold medal for teen/young-adult nonfiction. She is currently working on two additional titles in the Better Writer Series, one for college students and another for corporate employees. A Southern belle and sex symbol for the intelligentsia, she was born, raised and still lives in Orange County, N.C.

more about margot carmichael lester


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cameron crotty
3.21.06 @ 5:51p

It's probably too much to ask if the schools put the kids on the airplane loaded with the amount of fuel that they calculated they'd need.

Hey, you said Modest Proposal. And it would certainly get their attention. Plus it would make the press release actually true. I'll take my payment offline.



gordon churchill
3.21.06 @ 6:09p

If Larry Bird scores 6 points in the first quarter against the Lakers, how many points will he score in the whole game? Tom Hanks had this figured out years ago...
This is almost as good as the varsity football coach at the high school telling me that I should be doing more agility drills in my middle school pe classes.

erik myers
3.22.06 @ 12:52p

Having worked for a company that created products for teaching elementary school mathematics, I've come to the conclusion that the main problem in teaching math is the attitude with which it's taught.

From my experience, many elementary school teachers, think that math is really difficult. If teachers aren't comfortable with the subject, how can we expect students to be comfortable with it?

What's worse is that what they're teaching isn't particularly difficult, but they expect students to have a hard time. They build in their own teaching problems.

But you're also right in that the presence of math in regular every day life is really under represented. It's as easy as figuring out which is the best deal: Toilet Paper A which is in 4 rolls at 2.99 or Toilet Paper B which is in 6 rolls at 4.29. It doesn't have to involve complex engineering problems. Getting an airplane from point A to point B has a lot more than just distance in the equation. It sounds like a really terrible example for 8th graders.

I think we can all learn from the Tom Lehrer song That's Mathematics just how much math is around us every day.

tracey kelley
3.22.06 @ 3:35p

Right on target, Margot - the key to teaching well is engaging the student on a level that matters to them, in a way they can control.

Yet we still-don't-do-that.

maigen thomas
4.14.06 @ 11:51a

just saw this column, and it was right after I helped a girl in grade eleven with her math homework.

It took me fifteen minutes just to translate the language. After I managed to get it in laymans terms, it was quite simple to figure out how much a car depreciates each year (as a percentage) when given the parameters.

It's absurd how they treat math and expect anyone to understand it. The day to day stuff, I agree, is more beneficial to learn in the long run.

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