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A K–8 resource to support deep comprehension of math skills and concepts

April 5, 2023 k-2-math-practices, k-2-measurement-and-data, 3-5-measurement-and-data, 3-5-math-practices, other-seasonal

Math In Real Life– Strategies for Planning Lessons Involving Real-World Contexts

When are we going to use this? Why are we learning this? Why can’t I just use a calculator? If you’ve ever been asked these questions by your math students, then this article is for you! As teachers, our job is much more than teaching students math content; it is about helping students to problem solve in the real world in which they live today. The best way to do this is to allow students to learn math through the real-world situations that they encounter and that matter to them! In this article, you will learn about the relevance and usefulness of real-world applications in the math classroom and ways to implement these types of lessons in your classroom. The article includes strategies for planning lessons involving real-world contexts as well as a downloadable example that you can use in your elementary math classroom.


Benefits of Relating Math to Real Life 

The list of reasons to use real-world math applications and their benefits for students is long; they include increasing student engagement, improving how well students can remember and recall key concepts, decreasing behavior issues, and helping teachers with management. Both teachers and students enjoy the learning process more when the vehicle is a real-world problem.

Student interest and engagement are most directly impacted by the type of activity presented in class. By using math problems that mimic the real world and are relatable, students are more interested and therefore willing to work and engage with the tasks. As a result, students are more focused, and teachers worry less about classroom management. Additionally, students are better able to understand what they are learning and why they are learning it when the material is presented in a context that they can envision being in.

By using math problems that mimic the real world and are relatable, students are more interested and therefore willing to work and engage with the tasks.

Through these real-life math problems, students can develop the key thinking skills outlined by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practice. Real-world applications often require students to decontextualize and recontextualize the task during the solving process, model with mathematics to represent the real-world situations, and push students to ask questions and persevere in problem-solving. These skills are increasingly important as technology becomes more and more accessible.

Lastly, real-world math situations enable students to transfer their learning out of the classroom and into their lives. Real-world contexts enable students to draw on existing funds of knowledge, transferring their background knowledge into the math classroom. They also enable students to apply what they have learned in new contexts, transferring their knowledge from the classroom to their lives.

Using “Windows” and “Mirrors” to Reflect Real-World Math Problems

Bringing real-life applications into the classroom requires a careful balance of offering students access to problems that they will connect with and problems that students are unfamiliar with that will help them to explore the world around them. Presenting both types of problems can help students draw connections to their own life, “mirrors,” and help students understand the lives of others through “windows.”  

“Mirror” problems can be created by relying on students' daily life experiences. Common community events and shared spaces are great places to look for possible real-world math problems. Shared developmentally appropriate interests and characteristics are another way to connect math to the students’ lives. For example, learners in early grades often enjoy playing kitchen, doctor, and teacher. Using these contexts can help them draw connections between their play and the math they are learning. For older students, using the context of video games or sports is often an effective way to increase interest in learning math concepts.

Interdisciplinary settings allow students to draw parallels and make new connections acting as both a “window” and a “mirror” to using real-world math. Oftentimes, students struggle to make connections between the learning that they are doing in each content area class. Using an application related to history or science can assist students in integrating their knowledge between settings. History is often a great connection for early math learners to begin understanding time, number lines, and basic addition and subtraction problems to discover the amount of time that has passed between different historic events.

Bringing real-life applications into the classroom requires a careful balance of offering students access to problems that they will connect with and problems that students are unfamiliar with that will help them to explore the world around them.

Equally valuable to making math problems relatable is the opportunity to expose students to the vast world around them. Sharing real-world math problems that demonstrate how mathematics is useful can open students' eyes to careers other than the common interests of most kids such as being a firefighter, teacher, or doctor. For example, math is necessary for carpentry, architecture, business analysts, and many other careers that may pique the interest of students. Math applications can also show a glimpse of how math was discovered and is continued to be used around the world. For example, looking at how numbers were initially written in ancient times may help students appreciate the number system in use today.

STEAM connections, or interdisciplinary connections among science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics, abound in real-world applications and reveal to students that math connects to everything.

In any of the above types of real-world math applications, it is necessary for the teacher and the students to be able to see the context as realistic and useful. As you being to think about using and designing real-world applications in your own classroom, consider these strategies for incorporating realistic real-world math problems:

  • Include realistic word problems that your students might encounter.
  • Offer analogies as simple connections between a problem and the real world such as subtraction and the temperature dropping. Analogies can also be used to analyze a more complex concept such as comparing 0 on a number line to a mirror.
  • Set the stage through the wording of the problem or the topic and data being presented.
  • Give context and offer an entire problem that is an example of a real-world situation that students need to use math to solve.
  • Model real situations using geometric shapes and figures, equations, or technology.

The best way to get started is to give real-world application problems a try!

Math in Real Life Problems Examples

Each lesson of the Sadlier Math program opens with a real-world application and offers a STEAM connection lesson offering students both “windows” and “mirrors” with which to view problems. On April 21 we celebrate Earth Day, which makes this Protecting Our Planet STEAM Lesson both timely and relevant for students. This activity invites students to use units of measure for length to study precipitation records. After preparing models of a particular region’s record rainfall and snowfall, they explore concepts of climate change and its causes and effects. This activity connects to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13: Climate Action, which promotes awareness and education about climate change.


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Your students will benefit from the opportunity to enjoy math learning as they develop the skills that they need in their lives, now and in the future through real-world applications and rich interdisciplinary connections.






Lee, J. E. Prospective elementary teachers’ perceptions of real-life connections reflected in posing and evaluating story problems. J Math Teacher Educ 15, 429–452 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10857-012-9220-5

Premadasa, Kirthi and Bhatia, Kavita (2013) "Real Life Applications in Mathematics: What Do Students Prefer?," International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 7: No. 2, Article 20.