Learning Math in Real World Contexts

I was waiting for my pizza at a local pizzeria today and something struck me.  I have been reading Bruno Nardini’s, Portrait of a Master: Leonardo that covers the life of Leonardo Da Vinci.  There was a time in school where he became very unsatisfied with the way subjects were abstractly and vaguely taught.  He wanted something more concrete, something he could put his hands on, much like his personal studies of nature.

In a way, it seemed he wanted to learn with a purpose in mind, perhaps within a more concrete context.  Maybe he wanted to learn in a way that allowed him to see the application of the topic.  It then hit me, I’m often asked by my math clients – why do I need to learn this?  How will I be able to use this?  In a way, they are asking me the same thing Da Vinci might have asked someone of his class work.

Then I thought, why not teach math in various contexts.  Just imagine Algebra, Geometry, Statistics, or Trigonometry classes taught in the context of real-world applications.  That is, you learn the topics by way of applying them to solve real world problems.  The problems in class, for homework, and exams would be problems found in applicable professions and industries.  Imagine learning geometry in the context of architectural design or learning algebra in the context of computer programming.  And the truth is, each math course could be comprised of a few contexts that maximize the use of the particular sections in the course.  Ideally, the contexts are kept to a minimum so that students walk away with not only a great understanding of the topics in the course but also of the profession(s) and/or industry(s) that served as the contexts.

Let’s take this one step further.  Imagine e-textbooks for platforms like the iPad or laptops that teach these subjects within contexts as well and support the courses.  The use of technology can then allow students to simulate aspects of the context that cannot be brought into the classroom.  For example, building simulations that fall apart if students missed an important geometrical element of the building design.  Essentially, math becomes useful, purposeful, and in a way, a little like a game.

Interested in an example?  Thomas J. Petra has a website that offers the context of satellite views of earth through Google Earth.  He offers ways to integrate this context into math lessons.  Imagine this being a part of every relevant math course.  You can visit his sight at www.realworldmath.org

Thoughts, comments?

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