How have you linked maths to the real world?

Helena Mandleberg

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had students ask me “When am I ever going to use this?” or “What’s the point?” during maths lessons.

As a trainee maths teacher, one of the most important things for me to do is to keep my students engaged with the subject. Linking maths to the real world intuitively seems to be one way of achieving this. 

Some areas of maths easier to relate to the real world than others: percentages are important to be able to calculate discount prices in sales with “20% off everything”. An understanding of statistics is required to fully understand claims made in advertising such as “80% of people agree”. For example, how useful is this if only 10 people were asked? It may also be useful to understand what we mean by “average temperature” or “average rainfall” and how these are calculated. I have also used football league tables to illustrate how matrices can be applied to create and amend them with minimal effort if you know how many points are awarded for a win, loss and draw.

Football league table

Other areas are more difficult: quadratic equations, Pythagoras’ theorem and circle theorems are a few I have struggled to relate to relevant real world situations. Text book questions attempt to do this (ladders and walls spring to mind with Pythagoras) but often ignore practicalities and common sense. For example, most questions ignore the fact that lengths of ladders can be adjusted to make the ladder safe. No one is ever going to need to measure the angle opposite the wall to work out how far up the wall to position the ladder. How would you be able to get up the wall to mark the spot anyway?

Develop your potential

My point is that real life examples can be very powerful if they are relevant. Relevant means being practical. Examples should be chosen carefully rather than being pole-axed in to a lesson for the sake of it. Otherwise, students will be disengaged and perfectly entitled to ask the question “What’s the point?”.

All that said, we should not be afraid to emphasise the importance of the ability to problem solve and to persevere; these are important life skills that students can practise doing maths lessons. This can be done through open-ended tasks where students are able to explore and make conjectures for themselves, dispelling the commonly held misconception that there is only one way to solve a maths problem. It seems perverse, but maths is also arguably an opportunity to escape reality, which can be very engaging for students. 

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