— Computer-Based Math (@ComputerMath) November 21, 2013
Wolfram uses the word “relevant” to define the word “relevant.” This highlights (again) the contested and circular nature of terms like “real” and “relevant,” terms which everyone says and everyone else nods along to, but which are in reality so soft they fall apart to the touch.
Meanwhile, here’s Ben Blum-Smith, three years ago on this blog, offering a much more useful definition of “relevance”:
The real test of whether a math problem is “relevant” is not “do you use this in ‘real life’,” whatever that means, but “do you want to solve it?” It’s not that you want to solve it because it’s relevant; wanting to solve it is what it means to be relevant.
These two different definitions of “relevance” and “real world” lead to two very design questions for your math class.
One: “How do I make [some difficult math concept] relevant and real world?”
The terms here are contested and circular and for many math concepts the question is impossible to answer.
Two: “How do I make [some difficult math concept] something students want to solve?”
This question is often very hard to answer and the answers are often highly contingent on the culture you’ve developed in your classroom.
But it has the advantage of not being impossible.