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Inquiry-based learning helps students connect math to real-world relevancy

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One of the joys of being an educator is embracing all the differences every student brings to the classroom, while teaching them to celebrate those unique traits in themselves and each other. Yet, schools have only recently started using math instruction incorporating students’ perspectives and experiences, through approaches like inquiry-based problem-solving.

We say “recently” because the traditional approach to math instruction — where teachers demonstrate the procedures to solve problems while students memorize and practice them — goes back decades. It is how most of the educators teaching math today remember learning math themselves. That’s not to say we should abandon the procedural aspects of math; quite the opposite. Research indicates that procedural and conceptual knowledge develop iteratively. They build upon each other: Increases in one type of knowledge lead to increases in the other.

Math lessons and ongoing practice grounded in inquiry-based learning emphasize conceptual understanding using real-world contexts. They use applications that tap into students’ curiosity, exploration, and critical thinking. This approach empowers teachers to incorporate students’ differences in interests, readiness levels, and experiences into their instruction in ways that teaching facts and procedures do not always account for. This results in greater student engagement and classroom collaboration.

When choosing inquiry-based learning resources, we recommend educators seek out those that make math relevant to students using these five strategies.

1. Contextualize math concepts

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. So when we tell students that they need to learn math because it is everywhere, our lessons and assigned practice need to demonstrate that with regularity. Doing so eliminates the dreaded question that has echoed in math classrooms: “When will I ever need this?”

It is difficult for a student to engage in a lesson if they think it has no relevance to their life. Equations and concepts can quickly become opaque symbols and jumbles of words, but bringing them into the real world in relation to something your students are already familiar with can remove the intimidation factor. Practical applications of math, such as cooking, sports statistics, or budgeting, take the abstract and make it tangible while also reminding students that they are likely more familiar with what you are teaching them than they first thought.

a2. Encourage student-driven projects

Math concepts can become much more interesting if we allow students to tie them back to things they already find interesting. Student-driven projects — inspired by activities, passions, games, books, movies, music, food, or even celebrities — connect students to the facts and figures while further connecting them to the source of inspiration. The project may answer a question they have always wondered about, give them a deeper appreciation for the subject, or help them discover a new angle on a familiar topic.

Aside from fostering student ownership of learning and enhancing intrinsic motivation, student-driven projects also promote peer collaboration. They take a subject that can sometimes feel like an individual undertaking — listening to the teacher, trying to understand what they are saying, and then practicing procedural steps — and turn it into a group activity where students learn math while learning about each other. They may even walk away from the project having met a peer with the same interests.

3. Use current events and historical data

While it is important for students to see math concepts being used in their immediate lives, math instruction can also help them to think critically about world issues so that they become more active participants in society. It is another opportunity to show students that math truly is everywhere, from the flour in the measuring cup sitting in front of them to the economic trends that determine the price of the flour. To help build their math skills, encourage students to research issues they care about, like economic data, climate, state and local elections, or health statistics.

4. Integrate data analysis and visualization

Gone, we hope, are the days of students making graphs, charts, and infographics from artificial data sets. We can make math come alive when we let students interact with real numbers they have gathered. Having students get up from their desks to collect and analyze data using surveys, measurements, and online databases allows them to experience where the numbers that end up in graphs, charts, and infographics originate.

Understanding the entire process and discussing their findings is just as valuable as knowing how to create those kinds of number visualizations.

5. Create problem-solving challenges

Once students realize they encounter multiple math concepts daily, they can move on to more complex, real-life challenges that illustrate how prevalent and important math is beyond the classroom. For example, ask students to calculate costs for a community project or optimize resources for a charity event. It will involve them in higher-level math and engage them with causes that matter to them. Alternatively, get your students’ entrepreneurial wheels turning by having them design a budget for a hypothetical local business.

Putting it all together

Procedural learning is like a framework outlining all the steps necessary to get to an answer, while conceptual learning expands that structure into something useful. By useful, we mean knowing math beyond the algorithms and computations needed to meet state standards. Given math’s cumulative nature, methods like inquiry-based problem-solving give students access to multiple problem types in various contexts to ensure a transfer of knowledge that leads to success in subsequent math courses. They also help students develop meaningful values and traits — like collaboration, communication, and perseverance — that they can apply in other parts of their lives.