In the Classroom
Making the Horse Drink: Trying to Minimize Mathematical Indifference
December 7, 2018
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Al Feldblum

Some time ago, a colleague from a different content area posed these questions to me: “How do you do what you do? How do you teach math to students that do not see the relevance of your subject?”

I gave this some thought for a few days. I knew that I struggled with teaching the apathetic student. I knew what types of motivation I had tried, but I wondered what other math teachers thought about these questions. I sought the expertise of three public high school teachers and one middle school math teacher: Teal McInturrff is the mathematics department chair at Hardin Valley Academy; Joanne LaPointe is a former attorney and teaches at Karns High School; Luke Edwards is an Air Force veteran and teaches at Karns High School; Kendra Rinke is a later-career teacher at Karns Middle School.  

Four main themes or strategies emerged from our conversations.

First, math teachers should not only incorporate real world applications into their instruction, but real world applications that are pertinent to their students’ current lives. Such relevant instruction includes using data from current events like the increase in voter turnout from 2016 to 2018 or the rise in the number of tropical storms hitting the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast of the United States to create and interpret data and to make connections to problem solving.

Second, we should legitimately show students our enthusiasm for mathematics. Us “math nerds” see and appreciate the beauty of our subject. We take pleasure in pointing out the patterns we observe in mathematics because we see them as innately beautiful. By sharing our enthusiasm for our content, we hope to instill an appreciation for math in our students.

Third, we should promote the importance of the value of work in our classroom. Sometimes in math, just like in life, you might have to just buckle down and do the work. Learning this “soft skill” in a math class will be an attribute used in all other high school classes and will be used throughout college and work post high school. Many life-related tasks depend on the completion of a previous task – you cannot put away clean dishes until you put dish soap in the dishwasher and start the dishwasher. In mathematics, must problems are solved in a sequential manner. Step 1 must be completed before step 2 can be completed.

Fourth, math teachers should try to share personal experiences involving mathematics or a mathematical mind-set in their own lives. The age old question of “When are we going to use this?” is asked in every math class throughout every high school, and probably every middle school, in the United States. By demonstrating that we use mathematical thinking when we are at the grocery store to decide the maximum amount of pop tarts we could purchase within our budget, we are answering that question. Additionally, sharing stories where someone has demonstrated an ability to learn and apply knowledge in a different way to solve problems that did not present clear solutions is another technique used to answer the age old question; however, we all agreed it was a stretch to make this concrete to our students.

We agreed that as comprehensive as our list became, it was very time-consuming to try to incorporate all of these traits into each daily lesson. We also felt we often sacrificed connections for our students as we felt the crunch to cover content and prepare for a state tested course.

We math teachers do have a tough job “selling” our content to students that are used to this “right here, right now” era. What I hear from these teachers are some important underlying themes:

  1. Try as often as you can to make the content relevant to your students’ personal experiences.
  2. Sometimes, students will have to just practice the skills.
  3. Express your love for mathematics and share that it is “cool” to love mathematics.
  4. Use current events and/or pop culture to garner student interest.

Discussion Questions

  1. To math teachers, do you have any other suggestions for how to teach math to students that do not see the relevance of the subject?
  2. To other content area teachers, do you have any other suggestions for how to teach math to students that do not see the relevance of the subject?

Al has taught mathematics in Knox County for the past nine years, the last three years at Karns High School. Prior to Knox County, he taught in two school districts in Maryland, spending three years at Howard High School in Howard County and 13 years at Laurel High School in Prince George’s County. Al has taught the gamut of courses from Pre-Algebra through Trig-Analysis/Pre-Calculus. He is also certified to teach Teen Leadership by the Flippen Group. During his teaching career, he was an assistant football coach for 22 years, a head football coach for two years and a head wrestling coach for 12 years. He earned the 1997 Prince George’s County wrestling coach of the year award from the Prince George’s Journal newspaper and the 2007 Howard County football coach of the year from both DigitalSports online newspaper and the Baltimore Touchdown Club. Al graduated cum laude from Bowie State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics. He also holds a Master of Education degree in Secondary Education from Bowie State. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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