Solving for whY: Finding the Right Angle to Teach Math with Meaning

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Solving for WHY: Finding the Right Angle to Teach Math with Meaning.

Poor Y. Every year, millions of students try to solve Y’s intractable problems. They furrow their brows and scratch out long formulas smudged with erasures, red ink and tears. But despite all the best efforts of the students, Y returns each year with its problems expanded and more complicated than the year before.

So year after year our children run the gauntlets of math to solve things for x without knowing why. Some students survive these battles; others are scarred as losers in a contest that appears both incomprehensible and meaningless.

This is more effective at sorting winners from losers than solving real problems or educating students for their work or their role as citizens. If math is a tool to empower our children, how is it that many of our students fear it and some of our A students can’t calculate how much seed they need for a garden plot, understand a financial statement or tell when the numbers or politicians are lying?

What if we flipped the equation? Instead of solving the problems of numbers and letters, what if we used them to help solve real problems that we have? What if we learned with and played with the math around us in ways that made our lives and world better?

Real math is going on all around the school. The building manager has to decide how much grass seed to buy for the athletic field, how much fuel oil and cleaning products to buy, how much money they could save with energy renovations, how much garbage the school produces. The janitors have to decide how to dilute chemicals, how to clean the floors efficiently, the best routes and schedules for delivering supplies and replacing light bulbs. The kitchen staff needs to create proper ratios for recipes, estimate food consumption and track food waste. The school nurse has to track absences and illnesses. Principals track student performance. The schools are built to design standards that include the rise of the stairs, width of doorways, air exchange rates, roof loads and energy efficiency. But the math which keeps us safe, healthy, saves money and solves real problems isn’t invited into math classes.

But what if it was? School staff could show students how math is part of their jobs and show them how to use it artfully to solve problems. Students could create new solutions at their schools, their homes and in their lives.

What if students calculated how much money could the school save if it turned off the lights and computers at night? Or how much food they could grow at their school? Or how they could reduce storm water runoff at their school?
What if students calculated the difference in their life span based on drug/alcohol use, exercise, occupation and zip code? Could they devise a formula to live longer and stronger?

What if students started examining the cost of global climate change vs the costs to avoid it?
These are the calculations that matter in the lives of our children.
Let’s put a real “why” back into the equations and help them solve the problems in their futures.