In April, I was interviewed on Sky News about a project to improve teenagers’ GCSE maths results by teaching them more “real-world” maths. Disappointingly for the presenter, my co-interviewee and I agreed with each other. Making maths relevant to real life was, we both said, a good thing. A very good thing. No controversy. Good for education. Bad, perhaps, for broadcasting.
There is, however, a big debate about the maths that children should learn and how much of it should be “real-world.” The project we were discussing involves 10,000 pupils taking part in an evaluation of Young Enterprise’s Maths in Context programme. This concentrates on GCSE maths problems in everyday, largely financial, situations: for example, comparing different mobile phone tariffs or savings policies with varying rates of interest, working out the real costs of running a car, or borrowing money to go on holiday.
Not only does this provide valuable life lessons in money management, but the problems also cover essential parts of the maths curriculum and perhaps even offer light-bulb moments, when students realise that maths might actually have its uses outside school.
Children often find these practical maths questions harder than the pure maths of simply doing a calculation or solving an equation, which is why they need extra practice. Up to a third of GCSE maths questions are framed within a practical/financial context and students tend to do less well on these questions than on others.
It’s not difficult to work out why. With real-life maths, they can’t just apply techniques learnt by rote. Instead they have to understand the problem, work out what maths is needed, do the maths, turn it back into a real-life answer and check that it makes real-life sense (at least roughly—in the real world, a lot of what we do requires estimation rather than precision).