TL:DR: Ignoring the importance of the context of math word problems not only robs educators of an exciting opportunity to educate beyond the numbers but also may render prized instructional methods less effective than they could be. Part of the solution could be CriticalMath.ca.
I was in teacher’s college when I first heard about Math That Matters. Written by David Stocker, this is a math book comprised of real-life contexts that combines mathematics education with critical thinking. It was here that I first learned of the phrase “pizza party math”. Stocker identifies the problem with general math contexts clearly on p.11 in the intro of Math That Matters when he says:
Middle school is a wasteland of pizza party math, where youth are meant to gleefully calculate the number of possible outfits they can select for the party, and delight in figuring out the volume of the pizza box, how many slices each should get and how much it will all cost.
There are activities to measure flag designs and calculate the radius of wheels. Students are asked to compare the height of the CN Tower to that of Death Valley. Is that toaster marked $29.95 fifteen or eighteen percent off of the original price? How many fries fit in the regular sized serving container? What if I super size-it?
Math That Matters was published in 2007… how has mathematics education changed since then? It’s been ten years. Are we seeing richer and more thoughtful contexts put into math word problems?
Parallel tasks, open ended questions, math inquiry, number talks, arrays, manipulatives, subitizing, friendly numbers, 3 part lessons, 3 act lessons, big ideas, accountable talk, the 7 processes…some new things, some “renewed” things, but we are still seeking that elusive formula for effective math instruction.
We keep adding techniques and strategies to our practice but what if a significant part of the issue can be addressed by increasing the salience of context?
Not convinced that context makes a different? Let’s take a look at some examples.
Nelson gives us our first example:
Pearson enters the game:
A word problem about Gavin who is solving his own word problem. So meta. While it’s not a bad question mathematically speaking, as open ended as it is, that is representative of the nature of the word problems we ask students to care about.
It didn’t even take me long to find these – they were actually the first ones that I randomly found flipping through the flagship texts.
And it’s not just the publishing giants that get stuck in boring, mundane, or irrelevant contexts. Even Dan Meyer, who has made incredible contributions to mathematics education and has one of the best collections of free resources for teachers falls into the irrelevant category some of the time. Here’s a list of some his suggested questions accompanying his 3 act lessons:
Let me be clear. I think Dan Meyer is awesome. I think his math stuff is awesome. But imagine how much better the material would be if it was based in context that would help students understand the world better and understand the value of mathematics in society?
The math contexts that we introduce to students should be so important, interesting, and attention grabbing that we should never hear the phrase “when am I ever going to need this?”. And if we do get that question, we shouldn’t have to say “because you might be having a big pizza party one day”.
Enter the “Wait..What?” moment.
If we start a 3 act lesson or a math provocation with some rich context, what we’re doing is strategically using novelty in setting the conditions for learning to occur. Quite simply, novelty promotes memory. And since we have the opportunity to set the math in context, why not choose something that is both novel (new, original, unusual) and critical (confronting the social/historical/ideological structures of our world)?
When you contrast the 10k/per hour CEO wage with the 10 cent per hour factory worker wage, you get a “Wait…What?” moment.
When you link to the luxury department store that’s selling frozen greens for $65 USD, you get a “Wait…What?” moment.
And when that type of moment is attached to a learning concept, students remember what they hear. Not only does this result in better understanding (science says so!) but it also results in a population that is more educated about how the world works and how the current order of things impact themselves and others.
Critical Math is a site that provides meaningful contexts for math word problems. While you won’t find a list of word problems on the site (although feel free to add some ideas in the comment section of specific posts), what you’ll find are “critical numbers”, stories, and situations that allow for inclusion into whatever strand you’re currently teaching. With a section to submit your own ideas, the hope is to create an extensive resource of math contexts that are both novel and meaningful. The goal of the site is to promote both math education and critical awareness of what’s happening around us.
Maybe our renewed math strategy could be something like this:
(“Wait…What?” moment) + (Increased Mathematical Understanding)= A more educated and equitable society