Engaging Students

I remember sitting in my algebra class in eighth grade and asking our teacher how we could actually use algebra in real life. I am confident that I can speak for my fellow classmates in saying that I received the classic example of math being “practical in the real world.” She told me that if I grew up to be a farmer then I would need to know algebra to figure out the size of my field and the number of crops that I wanted to plant, then I would need to know how to use algebra. While this is possible and algebra may be useful as a farmer, a problem about trying to figure out how much money you need to save to buy a new iPod or shirt would be more relevant to a middle school student. At the time, I understood that algebra could be useful in the future, but I didn’t see how it pertained to me. I completed my work and tried hard in class, but it was more because that was what you’re supposed to do in school than because I understood that my learning in class was purposeful outside of the classroom.

Reflecting on this experience, I realized a couple things:

  1. Math problems used in schools are generally impractical and irrelevant to the age groups that they are designed for. Remember being in elementary school and having to figure out that if the store has 63 watermelons and Steve buys 54, how many watermelons are left at the store? I don’t think that I’ve ever come across anyone buying 54 watermelons. That would be ridiculous.watermelon part 2.jpg
  2. The more students realize that what they do in the classroom pertains to their life in the present, the more engaged in learning they will be.


Now I know that the above may sound like my teachers were terrible, all math problems are irrelevant and math class is boring. This is not what I am trying to say. I had some great teachers and some who did show me how what I was learning was relevant. There are some practical math problems that deal with real life scenarios. I also love math. However, I do want to point out that the everyday doings of math classes and problems are more on doing worksheets and evaluating how students do those worksheets than on giving students a vision for purposeful learning.

I recently read an article about ways to make learning engaging and how to move beyond the worksheet. The article interviews Dr. Brad Johnson and Tammy Maxson McElroy who wrote the book The Edutainer: Connecting the Art and Science of Teaching which explores the need for teachers to find more engaging ways to instruct students. Some of the points that they discuss are that the assembly-line “kill and drill” style of teaching which focuses on memorization and completing worksheets has not evolved as culture has. Currently kids have unlimited information at their fingertips and are constantly being stimulated. This lends itself to the need for complex problem solving and collaboration. Additionally, kids are now consumers and “inputters” in today’s society and culture. Because of this, they point out that, “education now is not about gathering information, but about learning how to make sense of, and utilize, information.”

Being bombarded with information all day, kids are going to select to pay attention to what they see as relevant to them. If they’re education is not presented as relevant currently, then they are going to pay attention to social media or the internet as it affects them at the current moment. Dr. Johnson and Mrs. McElroy point to the ways that this constant input in students’ lives actually lends itself to making education more relevant. Kids online shop at a younger age, sort through information constantly and are shown news articles earlier than they were just a few years ago. This provides opportunities for skill building and problem solving with context that directly affects them. Finally, creating problems that pertain to students’ lives provides an opportunity to show them that they are important to society and that their decision carry weight. By teaching through a consumer context and real-life situations, a teacher can speak into a child’s worth and belonging in a community at large. For ways to look at how to engage students and make learning more relevant to them click here.

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