Math Projects that Matter

Math matters when it’s connected to authentic tasks and situations in life.  Doing loads of textbook questions that aren’t connected to authentic situations isn’t engaging for anyone.  This is one of the reasons I have shifted my approach to teaching math over the last few years.  At the beginning of my teaching career, my math class consisted of marching chapter by chapter through the textbook.  In the past few years, I have moved to a project-based approach that has benefited my students in many ways.  In this post, I want to share a few of reflections that I hope will move more educators in the same direction.     

Adaptable to learners at different levels

One difficult part about teaching math is engaging students at different levels.  Unlike the textbook-driven approach, math projects can easily be customized to fit learners at higher and lower levels.  Often this is because the task is more open-ended and can be more or less structured to fit the learner.  Instead of boring advanced students with a set of questions that they quickly motor through and become disruptive to the rest of the class, math projects are easily expanded or made more complex.   

For example, in my pool project last year, I had my students build a circular, model swimming pool out of cardboard to show their knowledge about the area of circles and the volume of cylinders.  I also gave them certain requirements for the pool, such as its capacity and the target audience it would be designed for.  I made sure the target audience included people with a range of heights so that their pool would need a deep and shallow end. Once the advanced learners had this information and we developed success criteria, they began working independently.  I knew a few of my students were very advanced and challenged them to design a pool with a graduated floor.  Others, who were struggling with the general concept of volume, designed two, joint, circular pools with a flat floor.  

This adaption of the project was much more efficient than the traditional textbook approach I had taken in the past.  This adjustment didn’t require research to find more questions and answer keys.  There were no fancy math websites needed for advanced students to stay challenged.  Separate tests or evaluations weren’t necessary. Nor, did it require dividing students into ability groupings that may have prevented the more advanced learners from helping their peers.  In short, the open-ended-ness, that scared me when I started, proved important for customizing the learning to fit my students.  

More side-by-side time

One disadvantage of project-based math units it that they require more time on the front end.   The learning maps, assignment guides or learner playlists are more like a little unit a syllabus than a lesson plan.  In my experience, inquiry-based units often take many more hours of preparation than traditional units.  However, this additional time at the front-end of the unit has also bought more time mid-unit to do mini-lessons with small groups, or work side-by-side with students who need extra support.   This is a huge advantage when you consider that many parents don’t know how to help their children with math at home and others simply aren’t there to help them.  Students need assistance delivered during school and teaching math projects has been extremely helpful for this.

Student choice and engagement

I didn’t actually think about how passive my math class was until I started teaching with projects.  The first large math project I attempted asked students to design their own vacation.  Not long after the project launch, I received dozens of questions from students about the design process.  “Mr. Mayer, will I need to rent a car?” To these questions, I often answered with a question like, “How close is your hotel to the activities you are planning?” My students weren’t used to being able to make choices in math.  Narrowly defined problems with a very specific scenario and a single outcome were the norms.  Giving students dozens of choices to create and design gave them a sense of ownership and pride while engaging them deeply in mathematical thinking.  Recently, one of my students was so proud of the trip she had planned to Vancouver Island that she suggested that her family actually go on the trip at Spring Break.  Her parents adopted the idea and she was able to experience the trip she planned and budgeted for.

Cross curricular and cross competency 

In a textbook-driven approach to learning math, it’s sometimes hard to find opportunities for students to communicate about the math decisions they are making or improve financial literacy.  However, teaching math projects gave students multiple cross-curricular learning opportunities.  For example, in my vacation design project, the students were required to write a travel itinerary for their trip and make a commercial on Abode Spark to “sell” their vacation package to the class.  Writing appealing summaries and video-editing are typically not skills that students associate with math.  In fact, there were a few competencies that seemed quite unique to a project-based approach.  Skills like:

  • Students generating their own ideas about how to solve problems
  • Students comparing information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students answering questions in front of an audience
  • Students justifying their financial decisions using math
  • Student presenting their findings to an audience

I think it’s often this lack of complexity and cross-competency work that makes math boring for students.  Working on bigger projects allowed them to use many different compentencies while building their number sense.

If you would like want to shift your practice toward a project-based approach, I’ve linked some of my favourite resources below.  Or, if you have some have a resources that you would suggest, please link them in the comments below.  

Suggested Resources