How to Use Real-World Problems to Teach Elementary School Math: 6 Tips

By Alyson Klein — May 06, 2022 3 min read
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When you think back on elementary school math, do you have fond memories of the countless worksheets you completed on adding fractions or solving division problems? Probably not.

Researchers and educators have been pushing for years for schools to move away from teaching math through a set of equations with no context around them, and towards an approach that pushes kids to use numerical reasoning to solve real problems, mirroring the way that they’ll encounter the use of math as adults.

The strategy is largely about setting kids up for success in the professional world, and educators can lay the groundwork decades earlier, even in kindergarten.

Here are some tips for using a real world problem-solving approach to teaching math to elementary school students.

1. There’s more than one right answer and more than one right method

A “real world task” can be as simple as asking students to think of equations that will get them to a particular “target” number, say, 14. Students could say 7 plus 7 is 14 or they could say 25 minus 11 is 14. Neither answer is better than the other, and that lesson teaches kids that there are multiple ways to use math to solve problems.

2. Give kids a chance to explain their thinking

The process you use to solve a real world math problem can be just as important as arriving at the correct answer, said Robbi Berry, who teaches 5th grade in Las Cruces, N.M. Her students have learned not to ask her if a particular answer is correct, she said, because she’ll turn the question back on them, asking them to explain how they know that it is right. She also gives her students a chance to explain to one another how they arrived at a particular solution, “We always share our strategies so that the kids can see the different ways” to arrive at an answer, she said. Students get excited, she said, when one of their classmates comes up with an approach they never would have thought of. “Math is creative,” Berry said. “It’s not just learning and memorizing.”

3. Be willing to deal with some off-the-wall answers

Problem solving does not necessarily mean going to the word problems in your textbook, said Latrenda Knighten, a mathematics instructional coach in Baton Rouge, La. For little kids, it can be as simple as showing a group of geometric shapes and asking what they have in common. Students may go off track a bit by talking about things like color, she said, but teachers can steer them towards thinking about things like how a rectangle differs from a triangle.

4. Let your students push themselves

Tackling these richer, real-world problems can be tougher than solving equations on a worksheet. And that is a good thing, said Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford University and an expert on math education. “It’s really good for your brain to struggle,” she said. “We don’t want kids getting right answers all the time because that’s not giving their brains a really good workout.” These types of problems require collaboration, a skill that many don’t associate with math, but that is key to how math reasoning works beyond the classroom. The complexity and difficulty of the tasks means that students “have to talk to each other and really figure out what to do, what’s a good method?”

5. Celebrate ‘favorite mistakes’ to encourage intellectual risk taking

Wrong answers should be viewed as learning opportunities, Berry said. When one of her students makes an error, she asks if she can share it with the class as a “favorite mistake.” Most of the time, students are comfortable with that, and the class will work together to figure how the misstep happened.

6. Remember there’s no such thing as a being born with a ‘math brain’

Some teachers believe that certain students are just naturally good at math, and others are not, Boaler said. But that’s not true. “Brains are constantly shaping, changing, developing, connecting, and there is no fixed anything,” said Boaler, who often works alongside neuroscientists. What’s more, many elementary school teachers lack confidence in their own math abilities, she said. “They think they can’t do [math],” Boaler said. “And they often pass those ideas on” to their students.

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