Why You Should Teach Real-life Math Applications

By Sophie Murphy

Teaching real-life applications provides students with meaning and context for their learning. By using real-life math applications, students can make connections between math and everyday life.  

Mathematics is the universal language that we all experience daily in one way or another. We see the application of mathematics often emerging from some of the most unlikely places. Some professions use abstract mathematical concepts in their daily work, but I would argue that ALL occupations use math every day in many different ways. Whether we’re looking at patterns or problem solving, so much of what we do has direct connections to math. For our students, they may not visibly see that their days are filled with math. Where possible, we should be explicitly pointing these concepts out to students so they can see these everyday life connections 


In this blog, I will share the research that supports active learning in math through real-life applications. I also will share practical applications of what we can all do to create a transfer of understanding in mathematics for our students and to share with parents for all children.  




In previous blogs, I have discussed the significance of moving from surface-level knowledge to making connections that transfer one concept to another. However, I have heard students ask how they will ever use math in "real-life" situations. Many educational researchers, including McTighe, Marzano, Hattie, Biggs & Collis all talk about the importance of transfer and deep understanding. They share impactful research about how our students need to move past rote and recitation, connecting the concepts that they have learned to real-life situations that have meaning and context.  


As we move through 2020, we venture into the unknown world. We are still experiencing a global pandemic which has dramatically changed our schooling landscape. We have all had significant changes to our classrooms, our homes, schools and everyday life in isolation. Indeed, for me, both as an educator and as a parent, I am using as many daily events to teach mathematical concepts and connect them to real-life experiences.  


Asking the parents of your students to interact with their children in finding mathematical concepts that connect to the learning outcomes you are teaching will add a richness and depth to the learning experiences of your students. When listening to my children play games such as Minecraft with their friends online, I have overheard them discussing building coordinates, use of angles and measurement of designing structures. Hearing this math vocabulary is exciting! I have followed on from this to explicitly pointing out that we are using math when we are estimating, predicting and following instructions.  


Another place we have discussed using math in everyday life is at our grocery store. Grocery shopping requires a broad range of math knowledge from multiplication to estimation and percentages. Each time you calculate the price per unit, weigh produce, figure percentage discounts, and estimate the final cost, we are using math in our shopping experience. I have encouraged my children to play math challenges at the grocery store. For example, can they estimate the total cost of all groceries before checkout? Who is the closest to the final price? Money is relevant to students, and they see how it is used and calculated. 



When we’re at home, we take the math into the kitchen for cooking and baking. I use the specific math vocabulary to explore recipes as mathematical algorithms or step-by-step sets of operations to be performed. These concepts include: 

  • Measuring ingredients to follow a recipe 
  • Multiplying/dividing fractions to account for more or less than a single batch 
  • Converting a recipe from metric (mL) to U.S. standard units (teaspoon, tablespoon, cups) 
  • Calculating cooking time per each item and adjusting accordingly 
  • Calculating pounds per hour of required cooking time 
  • Understanding ratios and proportions, particularly in baking (ex. the recipe calls for one egg and 2 cups of flour, then the rate of eggs to flour is 1:2)


When cooking/baking, children can also learn about time. Time to bake and then looking at telling the time on analogue and digital clocks, about the world clock, time zones, calendars etc.  


To go even deeper, create word problem scenarios that connect to the concepts that you are teaching. We know that a vital part of the Mathematics curriculum is word problems. They enhance mental skills, develop logical analysis and boost creative thinking. However, it is essential to note that word math problems require connection and interpretation. Problem-solving can be challenging and highlights the importance and necessity of surface-level knowledge to solve word problems (see my previous blogs on the SOLO Taxonomy to articulate the differences in surface and deep level learning). If students are not able to answer the big questions, (those that are conceptual and require connections and application) go back to the more procedural questions. Problems such as identifying and describing the math concepts to provide a more basic, but fundamental surface-level understanding can develop not only an understanding but also the confidence to go much more profound and into more abstract conceptual mathematical understandings.  


Professor Jo Boaler believes that the key to understanding math is making sense of it. Many students believe that math is a set of formulas that rely on working memory; this belief is often associated with low achievement. At its core, math is creative. It’s about visualizing patterns and creating solution paths that others can see, discuss and critique. When going back to into the classroom or continuing remotely, consider how you can find out some of the daily math experiences that your students have been engaging in. Ask parents to assist with this by pointing out experiences and skills that your students may not recognize as math.  


Please share your everyday math experiences with me on Twitter @SophMurphy23, Laurie Boswell @laboswell, and Big Ideas @BigIdeasMath. We would love to hear from you and share your wonderful ideas that connect real-life experiences in learning math.  


Stay safe. #teachersrock 




Tags: Professional Development