HOW TO: Practical Ways to Make Maths Relevant

A common frustration among some teachers is a difficulty to engage their students in lessons of all sorts – history, maths, science, geography… Often times they wonder if it’s their teaching style that students aren’t responding to, or if the class environment isn’t stimulating enough.

I currently teach Year 3, Set 3 maths in a primary school. Our school tiers maths into top set, 2nd set, 3rd set, and bottom set. Teachers in the bottom set tend to develop their own plans that are predominantly numicon-based, with an emphasis on place value and securing basic bonds and timetable knowledge. In my set, I typically teach students who are just able to sneak past bottom set, and whose place value skills are still quite shaky, so it can be difficult to adjust the content of my lessons on a day-to-day basis. There is a LOT of differentiation happening in my set on a constant basis, and, unlike the top two sets, the students in my class don’t always have the same passion and desire to learn maths. I am constantly trying to find new ways of teaching them maths in a way that is relevant and inspiring for them. I have a lot of success playing interactive games with my set, as the foundation of such games rely on quick thinking and rapid recall of basic facts.


On the days that we delve into a practical activity or investigation, I do my best to set the classroom and the activity parameters so that they resemble ones that might be found in a real-life situation. In my experience, I’ve found that students are more engaged and inspired to apply their learning when they understand how the material is relevant to their own lives, or in their foreseeable future (however far ahead that is in Year 3).

Below, I’ve compiled some practical ways to thread examples of “real life” application into your maths lessons. Some of these ideas I have used myself, and they have worked out fantastically. I’ve also linked a few related resources that you might find useful as well:

  • Organise a lesson where students can explore an outdoor area (playground, park, nearby field/open space) and generate maths questions pertaining to the area.
    For example:
    – What fraction of the bench is blue?
    – How many trees can you count on the field?
    – What is the distance from the school to the ______ ?
    – What unit of measurement would you use to measure the amount of rain the playground gets?
    – How many sitting areas are there on the playground? How might you categorise them?
    – How tall is ______ ? How much taller is ______ than ______ ?
You might find it useful to show students a picture and ask them to brainstorm the maths they see in the picture on their whiteboards.
You might find it useful to show students a picture and ask them to brainstorm the maths they see in the picture on their whiteboards.
  • A detailed lesson plan and accompanying activities can be found here
  • Before beginning an investigation or practical project, ask students “What kind of person might be interested in this type of project?” or “What job might this investigation be useful for?” – this gets them thinking about the kinds of people or types of careers their lesson might potentially benefit.
    For example:
    Using this lesson, students use 3D shape templates to construct their choice of structure from a small list. You could ask the students who would need to construct a model template before building, why it is important to know quick maths facts (to calculate lengths and heights), and why it is essential to understand angles and measures.
  • Give students every opportunity to apply the skills they learn in class to a variety of settings, including halls, outside, other classes, and on school trips, etc. For example, equip students with rulers, measuring tape, metre sticks, etc and send them off in groups (with a TA) outside to apply their knowledge of measuring to a different setting. This will help to solidify their knowledge of measurement, as the setting and context of their skills application is different than applying them in the classroom.
  • Grab your students’ attention by titling your projects and activities with official names, such as “Engineer’s Booklet”, “Construction Manual”, “Mathematician’s Workbook” – sometimes sneaking in a professional title or adding a few professional touches boosts you students’ desire to treat a project with a bit more focus and maturity. You might just see your future “engineers” or “builders” emerge with an attention to detail you’ve never seen before!
  • Ask you students lots of questions about real-life and current affairs – has a city begun construction on a new set of homes? Has the next town over been working on repairing a broken bridge or railway line? Are your students’ families in the process of redecorating or building extensions in their house? Plotting a new garden? Putting up a new fence? Asking questions opens the door to conversation about building, fixing, measuring, scaling – the possibilities for mathematical discussion are endless!

Hopefully some of these suggestions have given you a few ideas to use in your own classroom in the upcoming term. How do you inspire relevance in the classroom? How do you teach students to see the practical, everyday uses of the skills they are learning? Leave me a comment below 🙂


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