Consider the Context
D. Neumann, posted April 10, 2017 —
tasks are one way to motivate student learning and build a rich mathematical understanding.
The context, culture, choices, and language used to create mathematical tasks can
activate problem-solving strategies that enable students to make mathematical
connections and learn mathematics (Carpenter et al. 2015; NCTM 2014; Schwartz
2013; Van de Walle, Karp, and Bay-Williams 2016). These next four blog posts will
focus on different aspects of problem-solving tasks:
start by discussing the first on the list, food as a context. Food can be a helpful
context for mathematical tasks because of the immediate relevance in our
students’ lives. We use food to find fractional amounts (with brownies,
cookies, pizzas, ice cream, etc.); to compare measurement amounts
(using rice, cereal, soda, etc.); or to count or solve operation problems (by
dividing a set of cupcakes, counting M&M’s®, etc.).
food is a familiar context for solving mathematical problems and building
conceptual understanding, here are two suggestions to consider:
ago when I was teaching middle school mathematics, during a professional
development workshop, I shared that I had students use rice to learn that the
volume of a cylinder is three times the volume of a cone with the same base and
same height. A colleague pointed out that I was using someone’s food for the
day as a plaything. Until that moment, I had never thought of it that way. I
felt terrible, and it is a lesson I have never forgotten. Millions of
children go hungry every day. Within the United States, the Department of Agriculture
estimates that in 2015, 13.1 million children (20 percent) live in
food-insecure households (USDA 2016). Using a small granular substance to compare
volume amounts does provide a visual hands-on activity for students, but using
food as a mathematical tool sends an unintended message that food can be wasted
and ignores the personal plight of hungry children. Now I use birdseed that we
feed to the birds after the activity is completed. If you do choose to use food
as a manipulative, make sure it is something children can eat afterward.
food-based word problems center around unhealthy snacks. For example, “Four
children are sharing three candy bars. If the children share equally, how much
can each child have?” With childhood obesity at an all time high in the United States
(20 percent of school-age children are obese), we need to be mindful of
the food we are promoting (CDC 2017). Consider using healthier alternatives, such
as apples, oranges, or sandwiches, to share equally.
the end, we need to consider more closely the context in which mathematics is
discussed and framed, particularly when it comes to food. The problems we choose
to use as real-life examples say something about who we are and what we value.
food, what authentic, real-world examples do you use as context for
mathematical tasks? We want to hear from you. Post your ideas in the comments
below or share your thoughts on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM using #TCMtalk.
Join us April 24, 2017, for the second blog post in this
series, when we examine hidden cultural messages in word problems.
Carpenter, Thomas P., Elizabeth Fennema, Megan Loef
Franke, Linda Levi, and Susan B. Empson. 2015. Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction. Portsmouth,
Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 2017. “Healthy
Schools: Childhood Obesity Facts.”
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved
Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian
A. Gregory, and Anita Singh. Household
Food Security in the United States in 2015, ERR-215, U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Service, September 2016. http://www.ers.usda.gov
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).
2014. Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical
Success for All. Reston, VA: NCTM.
Schwartz, Sydney. 2013. Implementing the Common Core State Standards through Mathematical
Problem Solving, Kindergarten–Grade 2. Reston, VA: National Council of
Teachers of Mathematics.
Van De Walle, John A., Karen A. Karp, and Jennifer
M. Bay-Williams. 2016. Elementary and Middle
School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally. 9th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Maureen D. Neumann, email@example.com, teaches mathematics education courses for preservice and
in-service teachers at the University of Vermont–Burlington. She is interested
in helping teachers understand issues of equity when teaching mathematics.
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