Today there is a great emphasis on applying mathematics to “everyday” or “real-world” situations. Word problems are likely to relate to activities such as planning a party or building a doghouse. Peek in a math class and you might see students figuring out how a roller coaster’s curves affect its speed, or how to chart classmates’ preferences in fast food. Teachers’ guides urge educators to give assignments that “have meaning to children” and “relate to their environment.” Showing children real-world applications of math is a good practice.  It helps youngsters grasp concepts (problems showing that there are four quarters to a dollar drive home what “W’ is all about) and can make assignments more interesting (for baseball fans, figuring batting averages makes percentages fun). Solving realistic problems demonstrates that math is a practical, useful subject. It helps answer the old question, “Just what good is studying this stuff going to do me, anyway?” Be aware, however, that the enthusiasm for making math “relevant” can go too far. New York father Sol Stem tells how his son’s third grade class spent months building a Japanese garden. “Every day when my son came home, we’d ask him what he did in math. Every...

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