Mathematics

What Parents Say Would Make Math Class More Relevant

By Evie Blad — April 21, 2023 3 min read
Image of a mother working on homework with her son.
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Sixty percent of parents responding to a recent survey strongly agreed that their child would be more likely to succeed in math if their classes are relevant and engaging.

But responding to that finding—from a December survey of 1,500 adults—could be a challenge for schools, which must navigate varying ideas about what makes a course relevant and useful in “the real world.”

The Global Strategy Group, a public relations and research firm, conducted the survey and focus groups with educators and parents on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the organization’s 10-year effort to improve math education, as Education Week reported recently.

“It’s very easy to check out from math, and it’s very easy to think I’m not going to be a scientist so I don’t need it,” Bill Gates said in an April 18 conversation at the ASU+GSV Summit. “But a lot of math is about understanding the world.”

(Education Week receives support for general operations and coverage of math education from the Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.)

Math is key, Gates said, to understanding everything from the tax system and income distribution to sports and many subjects people enjoy.

“If you don’t know math, you won’t really appreciate the beauty of all of these things,” he said.

In the survey, parents, teachers, and the public in general were more likely to describe an ideal math class as “relevant to the real world” than “challenging and rigorous.”

In focus groups that were part of the survey project, parents and teachers said math class would be more engaging if:

  • lessons were connected to students’ hobbies and interests;
  • lessons helped students from all backgrounds connect to what they are learning; and
  • lessons are personalized, tailored, and hands-on.

Defining relevance

Two students may have very different views of what makes something engaging depending on their personal hobbies, culture, family background, professional plans, and interest in societal trends and current events.

And schools in states with restrictions on classroom discussions about issues like race, social inequality, and “divisive topics,” may face some barriers in using some real-world subjects in math lessons. That’s particularly true if those lessons include history, social policy, or topics with political consequences, like climate change.

Before the rise of such state laws, some conservative lawmakers and activists criticized districts like Seattle for considering math instruction that would explore the subject’s roots in non-western cultures.

Some teachers in other districts have tried make math relevant by connecting it to civics with lessons that rely on historical election data to predict future outcomes or asking students to explore how flat parking fines affect lower-income residents differently than those with higher incomes.

In the last three years, amid a flood of new attention to classroom materials, some political commentators and policymakers have criticized such lessons, especially those that emphasize empathy or social awareness, as a backdoor way to steer students’ political opinions.

In Florida, for example, state leaders flagged proposed math textbooks in 2022 after a review found issues like a story problem that discussed research on implicit bias and learning goals focused on empathy and social-emotional learning.

Another concern about efforts to make math relevant: Math experts and scholars have differing views about how much instruction should focus on such inquiry over explicit skills and step-by-step procedures.

The Global Strategy Group survey touched on these issues when it asked respondents to choose between the following two statements:

  • “Making math more relevant and relatable for students of all backgrounds will make them more interested in what they are learning and therefore more likely to do well in math. If students are able to connect to and see themselves in what they are learning in math class, they are more likely to succeed.”
  • “There is a place for instruction that incorporates diverse backgrounds and experiences in other school classes, but at its core, math is about numbers. Efforts to bring culture into math classrooms will distract from teaching the fundamentals and making sure students can pass exams.”

Parents, teachers, and adults, in general, were more likely to agree with the first option.

In an April 13 conference call with reporters, Bob Hughes, the Gates foundation’s director of K-12 education, said approaches to make math relevant will vary, depending on conditions in each district, local conversations, and “community values.”

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