Sure, that sounds good… but what about math?

 “When you start talking about authentic instruction and assessment, the math teachers in the room stop listening.”

Not true for all math teachers, I know. But one math teacher pulled me aside after a recent workshop to share this observation.

Math teachers — especially those teaching higher level courses like trigonometry and calculus — know their subject is abstract. They embrace it for its elegance, its internal logic, its perfect order. It doesn’t need any justification.

Plus, higher math is fundamental to technical applications in physics, engineering, economics, finance, computer science, architecture and countless other fields — so its (eventual) relevance should be obvious.

Or so the argument goes.

I left that conversation feeling both unsettled and curious.

Are there opportunities for authentic instruction in high school math? And would they improve math students’ motivation and performance?

Let me be clear: I’m not a math teacher. I liked math in high school — I made it through Calc 2 — so I wasn’t one of the kids who needed relevance to make sense of math.

But many kids do. Algebra is the single most failed course in both high school and community college, and it’s a huge barrier for many young adults seeking careers that require some degree of numeracy.

In the past week, I’ve talked with a few very thoughtful math teachers (and I’m following several on Twitter now, like Robert Kaplinsky), and I have revisited my Beat Boredom research on this subject. And I am more convinced than ever that high school math is especially ripe for an injection of authentic learning tasks.

What do I mean by authentic tasks?

Authentic tasks (Chapter 8 in my book) are work that is meaningful outside the walls of the school — like creating a podcast or circulating a petition or starting a business. I’ve implemented these kinds of tasks in psychology, economics, history, government, journalism and English classes, and I’ve seen countless teachers use them in science classes.

So… what about math?

What exactly is a high school math student going to do that has real-world implications?

Actually, there are some pretty interesting ideas out there.

I found a professional article on vocational courses in the UK that are getting non-mathy teenagers excited about math. They’re presenting students with real-world problems, like predicting the spread of an infectious disease or calculating heat loss in buildings.

Another group that’s tackling this problem is the Carnegie Foundation, which has developed Quantway and Statway — courses that use sophisticated real-world problems to help community college students overcome the math barrier.

According to Carnegie, students in these courses “have had triple the success rates in half the time compared to their peers in the traditional remedial math progression, and they go on to earn more college level credits, transfer, and graduate at significantly higher rates.”

I obtained a sample of their curriculum, and it includes all kinds of authentic tasks like critically evaluating statistics in news articles, analyzing the methodology behind U.S. News’s college rankings (and developing your own algorithm), calculating and interpreting BMI scores, and solving roofing problems with linear models.

So what is stopping high school math courses from the doing the same?

I think the biggest barrier is a stigma against “practical math,” which is stereotyped as running a cash register or balancing a checkbook.

We need to get past the idea that applied math is simplistic — or that it is somehow less significant or important than theoretical math. Fewer than 1% of the students in our classrooms will earn PhDs in math (and some of those will be in stats or applied math), so even most of the graduates who specialize in math will someday be applying it in a practical way.

We need to help our students find and learn from those authentic experiences now. Let them watch Hidden Figures and calculate rocket thrust. Let them read All the Light We Cannot See and triangulate targets on a football field.

Judging by the success of Quantway, I think we could get more kids engaged in learning difficult math if we did. 

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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