Understanding the world through mathematics
The body of knowledge and practice known as mathematics is derived from the contributions of thinkers throughout the ages and across the globe. It gives us a way to understand patterns, to quantify relationships, and to predict the future. Math helps us understand the world — and we use the world to understand math.
The world is interconnected. Everyday math shows these connections and possibilities. The earlier young learners can put these skills to practice, the more likely we will remain an innovation society and economy.
Algebra can explain how quickly water becomes contaminated and how many people in a third-world country drinking that water might become sickened on a yearly basis. A study of geometry can explain the science behind architecture throughout the world. Statistics and probability can estimate death tolls from earthquakes, conflicts and other calamities around the world. It can also predict profits, how ideas spread, and how previously endangered animals might repopulate. Math is a powerful tool for global understanding and communication. Using it, students can make sense of the world and solve complex and real problems. Rethinking math in a global context offers students a twist on the typical content that makes the math itself more applicable and meaningful for students.
For students to function in a global context, math content needs to help them get to global competence, which is understanding different perspectives and world conditions, recognizing that issues are interconnected across the globe, as well as communicating and acting in appropriate ways. In math, this means reconsidering the typical content in atypical ways, and showing students how the world consists of situations, events and phenomena that can be sorted out using the right math tools.
Any global contexts used in math should add to an understanding of the math, as well as the world. To do that, teachers should stay focused on teaching good, sound, rigorous and appropriate math content and use global examples that work. For instance, learners will find little relevance in solving a word problem in Europe using kilometers instead of miles when instruments already convert the numbers easily. It doesn’t contribute to a complex understanding of the world.
Math is often studied as a pure science, but is typically applied to other disciplines, extending well beyond physics and engineering. For instance, studying exponential growth and decay (the rate at which things grow and die) within the context of population growth, the spread of disease, or water contamination, is meaningful. It not only gives students a real-world context in which to use the math, but helps them understand global phenomena – they may hear about a disease spreading in India, but can’t make the connection without understanding how fast something like cholera can spread in a dense population. In fact, adding a study of growth and decay to lower level algebra – it’s most often found in algebra II – may give more students a chance to study it in the global context than if it’s reserved for the upper level math that not all students take