“But when will I use this in real life?” = “But why should I really care?”

Summarized in one word, what you are asking is purpose. Students need to feel that the skills they are learning in your class have a purpose. Immediately! In order for skills to have a purpose for your students, they must be relevant to them now or in the very near future. Students do not benefit from forced attempts to apply math to, say, planet Earth, in general. Take questions like “There are 2 trains moving toward each other at 60 km per hour; they are 5 miles apart. How long will it take them to pass each other?” or “Use the law of sin to figure out what angle a cable attached to the top of a roof should have in order to hold it to the ground.” These may be “practical applications” of math, but guess what? Nobody cares, so those questions are purposeless!

The purpose of your classroom can be found in two central ways to help motivate your students: math skills and math-related skills.

## Significant skills related to mathematics

Math-adjacent skills are skills that are developed by doing mathematics but are not necessarily considered exclusively mathematical in nature, many of which, such as “reasoning abstractly and quantitatively” and “making sense of problems and persevering in solving them” are incorporated into mathematics standards.

For example, when working on a challenging problem, students might try multiple methods to solve it, work with friends to gain new perspectives, or make a mistake and start over. They are developing math-related skills such as risk-taking, critical thinking, collaboration, and learning how to grow from mistakes. These are all meaningful skills that they can use in their real lives, right now! They can use these same skills when they make new friends (risk-taking, collaboration), try out for the soccer team (risk-taking, collaboration, growing from mistakes), or get a part-time job (risk-taking, critical thinking, collaboration). Emphasizing that the math-related skills they learn in your classroom will improve their real lives right now is a simple and effective way to motivate your students.

## Significant Mathematical Skills

It’s much harder to convince students that the math skills they’re developing in class have a purpose (they probably know this from experience!); therefore, they need to work much harder to use this as a motivational tactic. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but I completely understand how difficult it is, given that we have little to no control over the actual math content we teach.

This means we need to find creative ways to connect this content to the real, lived experiences of our students. One way to do this is to treat our content in ways that take into account cultural differences. This can involve acknowledging and incorporating diverse cultural perspectives, experiences, and examples into the curriculum so that students see themselves reflected and find the content meaningful to them. Another way to show students that the math skills they are learning have a purpose in their lives is to use relevant examples (remember, relevance means it is important to them right now). Esther Brunat is a math teacher who is a pro at this. Over the years, I’ve seen her students learn patterns and probability by exploring the latest trends and fads (like, why are so many people suddenly wearing Crocs again? or what is the likelihood that in a group of 100 people at least one person will be wearing this hideous shoe? and does this statistic differ by region?), learn all about money by creating their own imaginary little businesses, and learn to graph by filming TikTok dances to identify how different equations move visually (and yes, she used this activity as an approach to summative assessment, which is pretty cool if you ask me).

Finally, one of the most effective ways to make sense of the math skills students are developing in the classroom is to broaden the definition of “math” to include all the skills we don’t often emphasize enough—skills that actually matter to students. These include skills like estimating, spotting trends, navigating, budgeting, time management, logical reasoning, making changes, optimizing, making comparisons, and literally solving any kind of problem. When we talk about math in this way, kids have the opportunity to connect the math they’re learning to what makes them meaningful, and they’re usually able to find at least one skill they feel capable of and confident in—a big win when it comes to motivation.