Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Math

Fifth grade math has gone well, but we have been hitting a bit of a dry spell lately.   Staring at fractions and decimals, factors and least common multiples was starting to seem, to the eldest child, like a sea of useless drudgery that brought up the timeless question, "what do you use this for?"

It's a fair question. It does seem to me that we like to divorce arithmetic from its context in real life applications. It's easy for kids to see the purpose of learning language, because they use it everyday for their own purposes. Math seems, from their perspective, less relevent. 

Cheyenne and Bella have expressed an interest lately in learning more about cooking and budgeting, so I decided to suspend my planned curriculum for the month and refocus on some practical life skills. 

We started with price comparisons. The night we began this study we were making tacos, so we decided to start by having the girls compare the cost of the individual packets of taco mix with the cost of the Costco bottle and, once we get the prices on the bulk spices, the cost of the mix recipe from The Tightwad Gazette. It's some good, solid mathematical thinking. How do we find the price per unit using the information printed on the package? What is the basic unit, for our purposes? If we use 3 T per pound of hamburger with one mix, and 4 with another, do we compare by teaspoon, or by one pound batch? What makes the most sense? If the amount on the package is given in in teaspoons, how can I convert that to Tablespoons? How about cups? If I'm making the homemade mix, how do I scale the recipe up or down? Does any of this look familiar? Fractions? Decimals? Factoring? 

Next up, I'm having them make a price book comparing prices of our most used items at different grocery stores, again taking into account units in a package. When it's all done we will have a taste test of some recipes using different products in which quality might make a difference because, after all, price is not the only factor to be considered in evaluating a decision. There are other, non-quantitative factors that make a difference too. 

This "break" from their math homework seems to be putting a little more steam in their learning engines. Suddenly the math problems have purpose and context. They are a language that expresses something meaningful. If nothing else, they'll leave home someday knowing how to make good use of their money and evaluate data for decision making. You could do worse. 

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