Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.


8 thoughts on “Just life . . . but solved as word problems

  1. I have recently posted along these lines, i.e. Maths is not = calculating, inspired by Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk Stop teaching calculating – start teaching math, an engaging insight into how maths education can be. In my experience, in order to engage students, Maths needs to be taught in context, preferably real-life but even a virtual/fantastical world scenario can work.

    I also want to add that some kids struggle de-coding word problems and translating it into something mathematical. I’ve devised a mnemonic (GGSC) for this which includes (starts even) with what has been suggested in the video, i.e. start with the given. Here’s a link to my post on GGSC to help decode word problems.

    Initiatives such as documented in your video, Wolfram’s as well as work by Dan Meyer and those who follow him (WCYDWT) gives me hope that maths education will continue to be relevant, albeit and perhaps necessarily, changed.

  2. I think we miss out most with not letting kids just play with math. In science classes, we allow kids to experiment and test out ideas. In math it’s often very lockstep and you are punished for not arriving at the single correct answer in the exact method that was taught.

  3. Students are begging for this type of interaction–they just don’t realize it because they have been molded into a certain “type” of student. They think Math class is taking notes, then reheashing and reprocessing what was given to them in those notes. They don’t even know that a whole other world is out there! A world that uses (actually USES) Math to do something other than move numbers around on paper.

    I started a plane geometry unit today. These units typically start with front-loading vocabulary (plane, point, ray, segment…) so that students will know how to interpret and read the crazy diagrams they are about to encounter. I gave students a vocabulary list, then we looked at photos of ballet and breakdancers, art by Picasso, Kandinsky and Miro, and famous buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon. We looked for points, lines, planes, rays and angles in the structures of the buildings and the poses of the dancers. We watched clips from the modern ballet show “Movin’ Out” and from classics like “Swan Lake.”

    They had no idea it was even there! Dancers are using geometry? How is it possible? We must provide these avenues to help students see this. It’s how to move forward–it’s how to make those diagrams in the book mean something other than “stuff for Friday’s quiz.”

  4. I love Leah’s geometry unit! Take a look too at “Calculicious,” a brilliant high school math unit devised in 2009 by High Tech High art teacher Jeff Robin and math/physics teacher Andrew Gloag. On my wall I have one girl’s painting inspired by Degas — she marks the angles of the dancers’ legs, their skirts, even explains the “vanishing point” of parallel lines. Page through the book for delight and inspiration — both teachers have put their unit plans online. Sure makes calculus look delicious!

  5. The success of your program reminds me of summer program I directed for a few years. It was designed to address the needs of academically at risk students. We focussed on skills and motivation in math, reading, research and problem solving – along the way we also learned to kayak, rock climb and juggle.

    Like your program, we discovered the key to success was getting student to think and talk about math.

    BTW I was so impressed with you video that I used in a blog post “Kids Explain 4 Strategies for Making Math Come Alive” http://bit.ly/hIvMUT

  6. Pingback: Kids Explain 4 Strategies for Making Math Come Alive » Copy / Paste by Peter Pappas

  7. Helping students see how equations and mathematical thinking are applied in their lives is also an incredibly important part of learning physics. I am student teaching a high school physics course and find that my students respond much better when they move beyond calculations and into seeing connections and asking their own questions about physics.

    After reading about meaningful and deliberate practice in your book, I decided that I would like to incorporate having my students create their own homework problems and answer questions they come up with that relate to what we’re studying. For example, we just began a unit on electrostatics. Students could look at kitchen appliances to find the resistance of each appliance, find out how many amps of current would cause their circuit breaker to trip, and figure out what combinations of appliances could be plugged in at the same time without tripping a breaker.

    Even more meaningful would be for them to come up with their own way to apply new equations/concepts to their lives, like the students in this video did.

  8. I am new to the teaching profession, teaching 7th grade mathematics. The style of “sit and get” was the way that I learned mathematics growing up. I am looking to branch out from the process I am familiar with to incorporate real world problems that will motivate and incorporate diversity.

    Recently, I had a lesson on simple interest. The students needed to understand the basic concept of I = Prt (Simple Interest = Principle times interest rate times time in years). I made several individual real world problems, split the students into groups of 4 or 5, and had each of them create a poster that summarized their given real world problem, showed the proper work to solve the problem, and had a graphical representation of their choice to show display the concepts that they learned. I handed out the questions randomly. After the posters were completed, the group presented their problem and explained their process and graphical representation to the class.

    After reading a testimonial from Bernice in Fires in the Mind, Chapter 2, page 32 of 235, it helped me alter this project that lacked the luster of motivation. This testimonial in the chapter titled “Catching the Spark” stated that “Being able to make my own decision made it more free. For once in my life I didn’t have anyone forcing me to do something. I didn’t have a motive, beyond that of having fun. I just wanted to experience and possibly learn something new. It was shocking how much fun I had at something I had never done before.”

    This student testimonial inspired me to make a couple changes to the project. First, I could let the classmates pick the example of simple interest in their own life, or have them interview an expert for an example of simple interest in with a real world example. This freedom that Bernice talks about could help, “catch the spark” and be more motivating to my students. Also, I could add a biodiversity component to the assignment with a theme. In the past, I have been intimidated to add extra components to the mathematics homework from other subject areas or experiences. I am realizing now that it is not only an option, but an obligation of mine to help my students in a mostly homogenous students classroom environment explore the variety of life in the world. I was thinking of adding some required interview questions asking the expert on how diversity is involved in the simple interest project.

    Does anyone have ideas on how to improve this project to make it more motivating and educational about diversity?


    Does anyone have ideas they use to motivate and teach diversity in mathematics? I would love to hear from the broader community for fresh, new, inspiring ideas!

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