How did you use math today?

One of my colleagues recently told me about a great math lesson that she had done with her class. In order to get her grade 4 students ready for decimals by thinking about proportions, she had them play floor hockey and keep track of how many goals they scored relative to the number of shots they took. After each student had taken a total of 10 shots, they compared their proportions and then started making predictions about how many goals they could score if they had the opportunity to take more shots. It was a rich discussion in which students thought carefully and articulated what they knew intuitively and made a connection to fractions and then decimals. Unfortunately, students didn’t recognize it as math, and the message that went home at the end of the day was, “we didn’t do any math today”.

Traditional math classes have really narrowed the common definition of math. Properly understood, students use math all kinds of situations, including different classes – like when they position themselves to get a rebound in basketball or when they compare GDP and population sizes in social studies class. As our understanding of math broadens, the kinds of activities in which students engage to learn math also broadens, meaning that math class doesn’t look like it used to. Instead of describing math class in terms of textbook chapters and homework assignments, what if we asked our students how they used math outside of math class?

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