Contextualization of mathematics: Reflections from the fourth reading group meeting

Contributors: Ben Breen, Karen Brockway, Jane Goodland, Tazreen Kassim-Lowe

The reading group is for those wishing to engage with research literature on TMSJ and discuss its relevance to practice. The fourth online reading group meeting took place on 20th April 2023. We chose to discuss Laurie Rubel and Andrea McCloskey’s 2021 paper: Contextualization of mathematics: which and whose world? If you can’t access the journal via a university library, you can download a pre-publication version here.

We began by breaking into smaller groups to discuss the following questions:
~ How do teachers use real life contexts in the mathematics classroom? And for what purpose?
~ How do the findings of the paper relate to your own experiences and classroom practice?
~ Would you do anything different in future having read this article?

We were joined for the second half of the meeting by both of the co-authors, Laurie Rubel and Andrea McCloskey, who helped facilitate a thought-provoking discussion of the issues raised in the paper, prompted by questions and comments from the groups.

Here are some reflections on the paper and the meeting from those who attended …

Jane Goodland (Newmarket Academy)

I thought it was really interesting to think about the four different reasons for using contexts in mathematics classrooms (conceptual learning, motivation, day-to-day life, social awareness). It reminded me that everything we do in the classroom has several different impacts, even if that’s not what we were intending. It also reminded me that when we choose activities, it is important to think about why we have chosen that activity and how it will help the students – the framework is useful for that. I agreed with the emphasis that the article placed on social awareness and critical pedagogy. It also made me think a lot about how easy it is for teachers to reinforce oppressive power structures, and how careful we need to be with the contexts we choose (and their possible hidden contexts) and also how we approach them. Even with a context that addresses social injustice, it will have a different impact if it is approached from a neutral, narrow perspective, compared to the teachers being open to ideas and embracing students’ voices and their own experiences.

Tazreen Kassim-Lowe (Former primary school teacher, PhD student at University of Nottingham, Professional Development Lead and Tutor)

‘How do teachers use real life contexts in the mathematics classroom? And for what purpose?’
In our group, I spoke about Early Years Education and how almost every task will be rooted in a tangible, real life context and merged into the children’s routines to make learning more meaningful. We spoke about how perhaps this is lost as a child journeys through primary school. I gave an example of planning a trip to the local museum with a previous year 5 class where the children had the responsibility to work out which bus we would have to catch, how much each person would have to pay to attend and a reasonable amount of pocket money to bring.

‘How do the findings of the paper relate to your own experiences and classroom practice?’
On reflection of my time in the classroom, the paper highlighted that CoM can actually perpetuate inequalities or can be superficial. Related to my own experience of working in diverse classrooms, there is a danger of assuming that children will feel a connection to the context.

‘Would you do anything different in future having read this article?’
In my work as a tutor, I think I will think about which comes first: the mathematics or the context. Am I introducing mathematics through a context to aid conceptual understanding or is the discussion around the context the essential learning where the mathematics is revealing social inequalities?

Karen Brockway (City of London School for Girls)

While thinking about Rubel and McCloskey’s paper in the context of my pupils, I initially thought that I contextualised most of my students’ work, but when looking through OneNote lessons from the last couple of years I found that most of the problems I pose are abstract, and for the sake of maths itself (occasionally there are some “forced” contextualisations based on the resources I use).  When I do use real-world examples, for example in percentages, it is because all resources are in terms of money and interest, and these are the questions pupils meet in exams. The only times I have been creative in contextualising problems, is when I see an opportunity for what the paper lists as Critical Literacy (Teaching Maths for Social Justice), or when I feel the students need a concrete real-world example to fully understand (Formative – Supports the Learning of Mathematics). I think this is because I teach high-attaining students who are able to apply abstract theory to real-world situations and generally enjoy problem-solving without the need for a real-world hook. Reading the paper and the discussions with other educators has made me feel I could try harder to apply Critical Literacy to other areas of mathematics than Statistics and Probability. Relatively little time in the curriculum is given to this area of maths before A-Level and I feel there is a missed opportunity of adjusting the problems I give to my students in Number, Geometry and Algebra – I just need to put some time into researching how I could do this!

Ben Breen (Dartford Grammar School)

This paper examines how mathematics is contextualised in the classroom, focusing on low income and disadvantaged students in the US. Most illuminating for me was the discussion of how these contexts “position” the learner – nearly always focusing on capitalist notions of profit maximisation, buying things cheaply, or drawing a wage. This forced me to reflect on my own practice, and whilst I was pleased to find some counterexamples there is definitely more to do and my awareness has been sparked. Why don’t we solve problems from the position of a scientist/activist/NGO more regularly?

Our group discussed which “type” of student is most likely to be presented with contextualisation, as the paper suggested a primary use as motivation for lower-attaining pupils. However, within our group we also discussed the use of contextualisation to require considering more factors to reach a solution (hence increasing element interactivity). This was also a theme in our Q&A with the papers’ authors, and I enjoyed reflecting on the danger of contextualisation causing confusion for students – “do you want the math answer, or the real answer?” – and the suggestion of getting students to suggest their own contexts, providing greater ownership of the lesson and their learning.

Overall, the paper was highly relevant to my practice. I find myself examining the questions I ask through a fresh lens, and my teaching is all the better – and more authentically relevant – for it.

Published by Pete Wright

Senior Lecturer in Education University of Dundee

%d bloggers like this: