By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
One of the prime tenets of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the use of real world examples in the classroom. Recently, Mel Riddile asked me to share my experiences on the value of incorporating such information into the high school setting. After I had written my response, Mel had a follow up question:
“When you taught using application to real-world situations, did you have more fun? Was teaching more enjoyable/rewarding?”
An easy question to answer
For the vast majority of teachers nothing is more exhilarating than an excited and engaged classroom of students. This belief is grounded in personal experience and from conversations with other educators. One of my favorite examples of this positive classroom environment occurred when my students were studying parametric equations. As part of the lesson, programs were devised to simulate attempted field goals on a graphing calculator. After the appropriate values for trajectory, initial velocity and the length of the attempt were inputted, an overhead TI projector in the front of the room would create on a whiteboard the path of the ball. As the students “watched” to see if the “football” would go over the “goalposts”, the tension was palpable. On those occasions when the attempt was successful the class would cheer; a groan could be heard if it fell short. Similar enthusiasm was evident when they used mathematical formulas to determine whether a capsule would attain orbit, studied the odds of rolling a six or an eleven with a pair of dice or discovering the precise angle to focus radiation to irradiate a tumor.
But beyond the infusion of excitement into the classroom, there were significant educational outcomes that resulted from these exercises. These moments would reinforce for the students the need for learning the fundamental concepts of the subject matter. It became evident to them that mastery of those ideas would allow them pathways to finding solutions to problems that made sense in their own world experiences. The dreaded question “Why do we have to learn this?” became a distant memory. While many of these activities might be viewed as “fun”, it was so much more than merely fun. It was solid, applicable mathematics.
The students were not the only people infected with this enthusiasm. Despite more than three decades in the classroom, I would find myself blurting out comments like “How cool is this?” while pointing at a solution applicable to “real” situations. Such remarks were not scripted; they were a sincere response of someone who after years of teaching was still learning new reasons to appreciate his discipline.
How important is the “real world” component?
An experience I had at a Texas Instruments class on using the TI-83 was a clear indication of the power of being able to apply mathematics to life experiences. It was nearly twenty years ago when these hand-held technologies were still being introduced into instruction. The class consisted of twenty teachers—nineteen taught math and the other was in Biology. As the representative from Texas Instruments would introduce the various calculations that could be done on the devises the attitude of the Biologist was very different from the mathematicians. She had practical applications for the abstract calculations being performed. She continually pointed out that these manipulations would be critically important in many of the labs and other classroom activities her students would be undertaking. Soon the dynamic of the course was changing within the room. The math teachers now had two sources of information—the instructor who was demonstrating the capabilities of the equipment and the Biology teacher who was plotting methods to utilize this power in real world settings. For me and many of the others in the room it was an introduction to the importance of bringing our students’ reality into their lessons. And equally important for each of us, it helped to create an occupation that was both more effective and emotionally rewarding.