Geoff Krall examines different treatments of “real world” math — the lame kind and the good kind — and concludes that the *self-awareness* of the task is important. He excuses preposterous applications of math if they’re *aware* they’re preposterous. This is interesting, but his horizontal axis kicks a serious question down the road:

How do we gauge the “real-worldiness” of a task? Whose world? Is that scale absolute? How is “weather” more real world than “blueprints”?

Nevertheless, Krall’s post is important because, for one, it’s always useful to have new ways of talking about old things. For another, his post usefully highlights our total bedwetting panic over the whole real world thing.

“When will we ever use this?” is a question that’s Kryptonite for a lot of math teachers. Some have managed to script out answers in advance along the lines of, “Math is PE for your brain,” or, “You never use history in your day-to-day life either,” or, “Next week on the test.” But the fact that they’ve prepped themselves for an inevitable attack indicates a serious issue that needs more exploration.

So let me sketch out a different way of thinking about “real world” math. First, I’m convinced that the adjectives “real” and “fake” obscure a lot more than they reveal. They tap into an *emotion* that many of us intuitively understand but they aren’t persuasive to those who don’t. I’m going to swap out “real” and “fake” for “concrete” and “abstract,” which will be a little more helpful.

Here are two ways to think about the “abstractness” of mathematics. There’s *what the context is* and *what you do with it*. Let’s put those on two axes and watch what happens.

Math teachers pick away at the horizontal axis relentlessly, seeking newer, *realer* contexts for the same old tasks, but most of the gold is in the *vertical* axis.

One reason for this is that different things are more and less concrete to different populations. Concreteness is subjective. Teachers in Kansas were much less interested in measuring Garrett McNamara’s big wave ride than teachers in Honolulu. Teachers in Grand Forks were much more perplexed by these hay bales than teachers in urban Atlanta.

The other reason we should focus less on the concreteness of the *context* and more on the concreteness of the *task* is, as Bryan Meyer succinctly put it, “Kids don’t like feeling dumb.” Working at abstract levels without having worked at the concrete levels beneath them is like starting out lifting enormous weights without having worked up from smaller ones. It doesn’t matter if the weights are barbells, sand bags, or jugs of water. You’ll still feel helpless and small.

Our goal, of course, is that students will eventually work at higher and higher levels of abstraction. That’s where much of math’s power lives. But that doesn’t mean we should *start* there.

Let’s look at the four quadrants.

**Abstract contexts with abstract tasks.**

We can argue whether or not this context [pdf] is concrete or abstract. To me this context is concrete. Squares and diagonals and line segments are concrete to me, but I understand that this is what we often mean when we call a context “abstract.”

It’s easier for me to argue that the task — what you *do* with the context — is more abstract than it could be. Important features have already been highlighted and named. That’s abstraction. That’s work the student should participate in. Instead, we’ve started at a heady place, one that’s bound to make some students feel helpless and small.

**Abstract contexts with concrete tasks.**

Math teachers grossly undervalue these tasks.

Take the same task from the previous quadrant. Remove the labels. Take away the names. Students decide what information is important and what to name it. They get to *guess*. Estimation is a concrete task — something you do while just poking at the surface of a context — one that students don’t experience often enough in math class.

**Concrete contexts with abstract tasks.**

Math teachers grossly *overvalue* these tasks. Math teachers are eager for new contexts, new reasons for students to evaluate y = 2x + 4 for x = 50 (for example). The student asks where she’ll use this in real life so the teacher panics and swaps in another context. iPads. Basketballs. Fast food. Anything. Barbells. Sand bags. Jugs of water. It doesn’t matter. The trouble is that evaluating y = 2x + 4 for x = 50 is an abstract task. The abstract equation y = 2x + 4 *came* from somewhere and that place has been *hidden* from students. It doesn’t matter that the context is concrete.

What’s important here? Why is a linear equation the best representation of that important stuff? What do we do with that representation?

These are concrete questions the students might need more experience answering before we move onto that abstraction.

Here’s another example.

Money may be a concrete context but this task (from COMAP) is already abstract. The important information (the principle, the duration of the bond, the interest rate) has already been abstracted. It’s already been represented as a table.

**Concrete contexts with concrete tasks.**

Don’t throw the task away. Just table it for a second. Ask students first, “If I put $100 in a savings account and walk away for 30 years, what will I find there when I get back?”

Students have a chance to guess here. Save those guesses and credit the closest guessers later. Some may say, “$100,” offering us an quick formative assessment of their understanding of savings accounts. They’ll have to decide what information is important and where to get it, like the interest rate at a local savings bank.

After they’ve participated in that abstraction, they’ll be much better prepared for COMAP’s abstract task.

**My scientific evaluation.**

My scientific evaluation is that concrete contexts (what it is) buy you a 2x multiplier on student engagement while concrete tasks (what you do with it) buy you a 5x multiplier. Concrete contexts with concrete tasks? You know how to multiply.

So take something that’s concrete to your students and give them concrete tasks before you give them abstract tasks:

- “What’s your question?”
- “What’s your guess?”
- “What would a wrong answer look like?”
- “What information is important?”
- “That’s a pile of information there. How should we represent it?”

Et cetera.

I’ve been exploring that kind of task for awhile now but I don’t think the “concreteness” or “realness” of the context matters anywhere near as much as the fact that those tasks all start with guessing and other concrete tasks.

If students are working on tasks that don’t make them feel stupid, tasks that make them *participants* in an abstract process rather than *subjects* of it, the “real-worldiness” issue all but evaporates.

**Related**: Bet On The Ladder, Not On Context; Cornered By The Real World.