Making Math Relevant

ReadingthuRsday-R2Mathematics is a subject many students dread because the students view math as having no relevant use in their life. To many students a math problem goes like this:


  1. I am given a confusing word problem.
  2. I have to use confusing symbols representing ‘stuff’ I don’t understand in the word problem.
  3. I have to do complex calculations on stuff I really don’t get.
  4. I have an answer that is not only incorrect, but I forgot what I was originally trying to solve!

Frustration builds and thus students repeat what they have heard for years: “Math is too hard!” Making mathematics useful to students can be challenging, as the skills required to solve the big problems of the world are so complex that students cannot see the forest for all the trees.

Many times we come up with what we believe are fabulous activities or examples that will persuade the math naysayer to come to appreciate the usefulness of the subject. The reaction we think we will get:


is usually dwarfed by the reaction we actually receive:


After my attempts to use different quirky and fun examples that I thought my students would enjoy usually led to the second reaction, I was pleasantly surprised by the example I thought most would have little interest in because it is not fun or exciting. The subject was rate of change, and I decided to use home values to show the boring relationship between home values and how to use rate of change.  I tasked the students to pair up and find four different locations around the country in which to find the price of a house today versus sometime in the past. The students were then asked to calculate the rate of change over time using . dollar houseAfter they finished, they had to write the location of the home they found and how the values changed over time, then show the rest of the class what they found. We did a quick example so they could see how the website worked and where to look. The excitement grew when I overheard students discussing their shock at how much a house lost or gained in just a few short years. What started out as a boring math problem turned into an economics lesson, a geography lesson, and a math problem rolled into one and it was fun. As they related the information about the locales they chose you could hear the surprise and excitement over the information they gleaned in just a few short minutes. You would have thought I had given them candy and told them we were not doing any math that day! Never did I expect this reaction:


It never occurred to me that the lesson was tapping into the pleasure center of the brain where they could imagine buying a home in some exotic location around the country or imagine selling a home for a huge profit. The problem allowed the student to be creative and have a little fantasy in class while learning. Maybe if we approached the lesson with that in mind we may hear “That was fun!”


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