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“When am I ever going to use this?” Making middle years mathematics relevant for 21st century learners February 6, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Cathy Attard

Cathy’s previous post, “If you like the teacher, you’ll ‘get’ maths more”: Students talk about good mathematics teachers, was one of our most popular to date. In her new post she argues that it is necessary to provide students with mathematics tasks that relate to real world applications but which also provide intellectual challenge. She provides an example of one such task in her post below.

How many times have your students asked ‘why do I have to know this?’ or ‘when am I ever going to use this?’ Current Australian frameworks for quality teaching stress the importance of making mathematics learning relevant for students in today’s classrooms (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers [AAMT], 2006; NSW Department of Education and Training, 2003), and perhaps now is the perfect time, with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum, for we as teachers to reflect upon how our pedagogies are highlighting the links between school mathematics and students’ ‘real world’ mathematics.

In addition to the call to makie mathematics relevant, recent research has highlighted the need for students to develop a more critical understanding of mathematics and its use in our world. Building on the work of Newmann et al. (1996), and the Productive Pedagogies (Atweh & Bland, 2005), a different view of the intellectual quality of mathematics pedagogy – a critical perspective on learning mathematics – has been explored (Atweh, 2007). A limitation of the intellectual quality of mathematics is that it is measured from within the discipline itself, rather than the usefulness of the knowledge in the current and future lives of the student. It is believed mathematics education can contribute to the ability of students to function as effective citizens in the world. This has been labelled this as a conforming ideal, consistent with the dominant justification of mathematics curriculum as developing skills and knowledge as preparation for future employment (Down, Ditchburn, & Lee, 2008). Atweh argues that “mathematics can also be used to enable students to understand how the world works in order to change aspects of the world” (2007, p.6).  This has been labelled as the reforming capacity(Down et al., 2008). In addition, mathematics also has the capacity for transforming, to create the world in a new way – a focus on mathematics education consistent with a critical mathematics movement.

Consider this example of a mathematics task that has the potential to engage students in using ‘school’ mathematics applied to a ‘real-world’ context:

“You have just been given permission from your parents to choose a new mobile phone and select a new phone plan. Because you now have a casual job and are earning $52.00 a week, you need to select a phone and a plan that you can afford (remember you need to have money left over for other expenses).

Prepare a proposal to your parents and include the following:

  • The selected phone and plan
  • A list of your needs (calls, SMS, downloads, etc.)
  • The criteria you used to select the phone and plan
  • A comparison with at least 3 other phones and plans
  • Any mathematics you used to help make your decision
  • A monthly budget proving you can afford the phone and plan of your choice.”

At face value, the task appears straight forward. However, if we take into account the complexities involved in today’s mobile phone market, students have the opportunity to use a wide range of mathematics to critique the many options available and the value being offered by the various providers. In addition, tasks such as the one above provide the opportunity for students to use technology to assist in their investigations and in the presentation of their findings. The phone task is able to be differentiated in various ways, allowing the diversity of learners’ opportunities to achieve success and opportunities for the development of mathematical knowledge within a meaningful context, therefore promoting positive engagement with mathematics.

Developing mathematical knowledge engages students whilst demonstrating the usefulness and relevance of mathematical knowledge. “The usefulness of mathematics should not only be demonstrated by using examples from the real world of the student as applications of mathematics, but also mathematical knowledge should be developed through such activities” (Atweh, 2007, p. 9).  This engagement should incorporate the physical, economic and social world of students now and in their adult lives.

ReferencesAtweh, B. (2007). Pedagogy for socially response-able mathematics education. Paper presented at the Australian Association of Research in Education Conference.    Atweh, B., & Bland, D. (2005). Mathematics through/for understanding social life: productive pedagogies meets critical mathematics [Electronic Version]. Retrieved October 14 from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/archive/00003001/01/MES2005%2520Atweh.pdf.     Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers [AAMT]. (2006). Standards of Excellence in Teaching Mathematics in Australian Schools. Adelaide: Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers.    Down, B., Ditchburn, G., & Lee, L. (2008). Teachers’ idealogical discourses and hte enactment of citizenship education. Curriculum Perspectives, 28(3), Go to library and check actual page numbers. Call number Q375.0005.    Newmann, F. M., Marks, H. M., & Gamoran, A. (1996). Authentic pedagogy and student performance. American Journal of Education, 104.    NSW Department of Education and Training. (2003). Quality Teaching in NSW Public Schools. Sydney: Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.

Cathy Attard is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


1. Seamus - February 7, 2011

A fine task, however I feel the real hindrance behind creating a more engaging middle years maths curriculum is the competing demands of making it ‘interesting’, catering for students of different abilities and keeping pace with the curriculum.
At a school I was recently working at my fellow teachers and I were consistently at a loss as to how to create innovative lessons, such as the one you detailed, whilst also dealing with the need to cover complex content knowledge, for instance Linear Graphs, within a short time frame. I fear that increased focus on NAPLAN data as a result of the MySchool website is going to mean that this becomes even more the focus, at the expense of innovation such as this.

2. auntylee - February 8, 2011

if maths teachers worked as mathematicians or worked in areas which used maths then they would be in a better position to answer this quetion. Perhaps the Maths associations could arrange talks where practicing Mathematicians talk to teachers about the practical applications of maths. Also remind students thatyou are preparing them for life and you don’t know what they will be doing in the future.

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