The Importance of Real Life Connections to Math

Math – Connected to Real Life

Recently, I had yet another example of the power of realizing the connection of math to our everyday life – and the importance of this realization in the realm of the classroom…and beyond.

I was meeting with a fellow educator about our district’s new math assessment – The SNAP (Student Numeracy Assessment & Practice). The SNAP is currently mandatory for students in grades 2-7 and we were creating an optional version for grades 8 and 9.

The SNAP utilizes two templates. One is used for Number Sense, and the other for Number Operation. We were trialing options for Number Operation and we really wanted to use an algebraic equation in our question. We thought that an appropriate question might be:

(2c) (3c) = n

Simple enough right? Well…not so much.

  • Could we estimate the answer?
    • Kind of. Using mental math, we knew that the answer would be 6c2
  • Could we calculate this?
    • Yes…we calculated it and showed that it would equal 6c2
  • Could we draw this equation?
    • After a bit of trouble with this, we realized that we could draw 6 squares each with a length and width of “c”.
  • Could we think of a use for this equation in “real life”?
    • No. We. Really. Could. Not.

We spent about an hour trying to talk through this piece of the assessment. We laughed, we argued and we finally gave up. We both knew that there was a real life application, but it was nearing the end of the day and we just could not figure out a way to come up with one.

The next day I met with a number of teacher colleagues with a whiteboard and, after some time, much like an episode of House MD, we finally cracked this seemingly simple eighth grade question.

The Epiphany:

The real life application came down to a primary math concept of measurement using non standard units of measure.

What does this mean in plain language?

Let’s say that we are in a room and we want to measure the size of the room. Unfortunately, we do not have a ruler or a tape measure with us. However, we do have length of string. Let’s call the string “c”. We use the string and measure the short side of the rectangular room. It is 2 string lengths long (2c). We measure the longer side of the room. It is 3 string lengths long (3c).

(2c) (3c) = 6c2

Later on, we are able to take the string to a place that has a measuring tape. We find out that the string was 5 feet long. We can now substitute c = 5 and we find out that the room is 10 feet x 15 feet, or 150 square feet.


This is a perfect case to point out the issues that we still have in our education system. Even though we are making some progress, we are we are still missing a true focus on the process, strategies, conceptualization and applications. If we cannot make the classroom connect to the real world (in any subject), then we are failing our students.

Fortunately, we are figuring this out. Practices are changing. Here in Chilliwack we have The SNAP – and a team of exceptional educators leading the change process. This work is transforming our practice. It is causing all of us to question problems and find solutions that previously would have been left unasked. No longer is it a good enough answer to say – “That is the rule – memorize it.” No longer will we hear this rhyme in math class:

“Ours is not to question why, just invert and multiply!”

1 Comment

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  1. This whole blog post is an illustration of the math mindset community I want to see in my own classroom.. in classrooms everywhere. When faced with a challenging question, the “unknown” real life example, you worked it through with a partner, laughed about the struggle, didn’t give up when you really. didn’t. know, sought out discussion from a larger group, and eventually succeeded. Math should be a community building experience. I’m so tired of hearing about students who are sitting in classrooms, in isolation, doing pages of worksheets and drills and feeling alone if they don’t understand or have the answer. In some classrooms, students have no idea why they are learning the concepts; math is remaining meaningless and abstract. This needs to change.
    Math should be about students networking and problem solving together.
    The same goes for the teachers in our district… they need to be working with each other if they don’t know the best way to make those real life connections available/teachable to their students! They need to seek each other out to figure out how to deliver their curriculum in the most effective ways — even when it is really difficult and challenging. As SNAP helping teacher, I have found that in most of our meetings with teachers, we are hearing over and over again, “Ohhh.. the real life example is the hardest part for my students.” Yes it is. It can also be the most difficult part to teach. But it is so worth the effort!
    I think that once teachers begin to understand that it is precisely during the moments of struggle and good problem solving that students (and teachers themselves) need to rely on each other the most — working together within a math mindset community — only then will the epiphanies start to happen in greater numbers.

    Liked by 2 people

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