I spent a really invigorating and exciting day at EdcampNYC on Saturday, surrounded by passionate, motivated, active educators. I just want to thank everyone who came, especially the attendees at my session, Student Choice in the Classroom.

The sessions were posted by people who could facilitate, but not necessarily in response to attendee interest, and some were left underwhelmed by the offerings. If I were designing EdcampBK, for instance, I would include a way for session requests – probably a quick and dirty version of class planning at PSCS.

I just wanted to grab these underwhelmed adults and say, “see how boring stuff is when it isn’t what you want? That’s how our students feel everyday!”

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At the end of our student choice session, I had a conversation with a teacher about her daughter, who was very interested in becoming a math teacher. The daughter spent lots of time in college preparing for this, but she decided to enter the business world instead, and come to teaching later in life.

*“If I’m going to tell these kids about all of the real world applications of math in the business world, and all of the life and career paths that include math, I’d better have some experience with it first,” said the daughter.*

Math is so COOL! Right?

First of all, if she just wants the money, I get it. No blame. No shame. I’ve seriously considered selling out lots of times, especially with student loans rocking my monthly budget. On the other hand, she brings up a good point. You don’t even need to look at a textbook like this to know that questions of “real world applicability” are always being asked. In the face of “when am I ever going to use this?” many teachers see winning over students and convincing them of relevance as hugely important for gaining their buy-in.

They’ve got that right! Personal attachment and investment are what drive personal growth, but this is a very artificial look at math in the real world. Let alone that shade of orange and the hodge podge cover full of unrelated stuff, I suspect no one actually sees the world this way. Ugh.

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Here’s a better vision of real world math.

Dan Meyer is a former teacher, now doctoral fellow at Stanford working on curriculum design. You can check out his TED talk, but I’ll summarize. Dan’s trying to recontextualize mathematics by using videos and photos of REAL scenarios – the kind you can actually see.

Here’s a classic problem, revamped and improved.

You show that, and then ask the students what they’re wondering. “Does it go in?” perhaps. You can read all about Dan’s “three acts of a mathematical story” here, but act one should grab hold of the audience with something truly compelling. I’m all about that, for sure, but let me be critical.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Dan is close to merely repackaging the same old product in a more exciting way. I applaud his work and effort, but this is still pretty dull. Dan’s stuff is distinct from that textbook cover in two ways; It’s authentic, and it’s actually compelling (though not always and not for everyone). Furthermore, lots of teachers simply must teach this stuff, by law, so I’m extremely happy that he’s helping them do that, but the “math makeover” we need is about much more than repackaging.

It’s about the mathematical process (Dan gets this), and it’s about student interest and *their* questions. I get the sense that Dan only kind of gets this one, because the videos speak so directly towards one or perhaps a few very specific questions. I try, instead, to bring students to mathematically rich and accessible environments, in which an abundance of questions can be pursued along various routes. This helps students develop the mathematical instincts already within them, on whatever terms they can negotiate.

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But here’s what rocks about Dan Meyer and what I think “real world math” really is.

Dan is a *very* passionate mathematician, and he is sharing compelling math, directly from his own experience. Seeing math in the world is something he actually *does, *and to share that with students is to help them do it themselves. If my kid were in his class (not that I have one), I would be thrilled that he got to learn from a passionate and empowered math nerd.

That’s what’s real about math in this world. There are real human beings, called “mathematicians,” that spend a considerable portion of their time engaged in mathematical thought – asking questions, answering them, revising, explaining, sharing, tinkering, analyzing, wondering, dreaming, playing, failing, succeeding, and on and on. This is what I want to share with students. Math is something that people do, including me, and it is something that they can do as well.

This is what I want to tell that daughter. You don’t have to go into business to understand real math. Simply immerse yourself in a mathematical life, be a mathematician (in your own way), and you will have plenty to share. The sad fact is that school-math discourages this notion by implying to students that math is math class (or for geniuses), particularly because so many so-called “real world applications” are wholly artificial and pseudocontextualized. Furthermore, school tells us we need teachers, texts, and problem sets to do math, when this is far from the truth.

Real world math is simply mathematical thinking. It’s personal, it’s real, and it can happen to all of us.