• The "SaY" Magazine

"SaY" it with Education: How to Bring Math into Daily Life with Middle Schoolers

Is a dump truck a vehicle?


What about a skateboard?

An elevator?

A hamster wheel?


These are some of the questions you can ask — while playing a reasoning game called “Is It or Not?”


You can play this game with children of all ages.


It is a dinner table conversation. Kids can join in and they really enjoy thinking of interesting, additional cases.

Definitions are central to mathematics, but children’s concept images — what they picture for a triangle, for example — does not always line up with the concept definition.


“Is It or Not?” helps them strengthen their concept images. It’s also a fun way to bring mathematical thinking into everyday conversation.

Parents are usually inclined is to think of math as a thing that happens in school. That leaves parents in the role of homework helper and can lead to anxiety when parents lack math confidence, especially as kids reach middle school and algebra enters the picture.


Such stress may be particularly acute as parents try to keep their kids’ education on track during distance learning. But watching over your middle schooler’s shoulder as they complete worksheets is not the only or best way to help them. By asking open-ended questions, developing a shared math language and connecting math to young people’s interests, parents can support pre-teens’ mathematical development in a way that is more fun for everyone involved.

Ask Open-ended Questions "I think for students and our own kids, we want to rescue them as they’re working on math. We just want to tell them how to do it,” said a parent to an eight-grader recently during our one-on-one sessions.


We suggest a different starting point for parents: asking questions. That’s a central practice in our inquiry-driven classroom strategy, and we shared a few to try:

  • What do you notice about the problem?

  • What are you wondering?

  • What does this symbol mean?

  • What do you see?

These questions can be applied to formal math problems but also during informal conversations, such as noticing patterns in nature. Listening to kids’ answers can reveal important information about what they understand and don’t understand.

Develop a Shared Language Talking about math takes practice. To give students a structure for engaging in math conversations, Use sentence stems, such as:

  • “I agree/disagree with ____ because …”

  • “My solution is like ____’s because …”

  • “I don’t understand ____ part of your reasoning, because …”

In the classroom, students use these phrases to compare ideas in small groups, then present different solution paths to the class. At home, young people can use sentence starters like these in family conversations about topics such as screen time or budgets. It’s “amazing” to watch tweens articulate decisions about math when “given the tools and the opportunities to do it.”

Make the Stakes Real Identity development looms large in middle schoolers’ lives. For this reason, math talk with tweens should focus on “helping them gain leverage or influence in the world.”


For example, hire your child to help calculate simple business revenue streams. When you children go to the shop with you, ask them to calculate the amount to be paid and the amount to be returned. Make them accustomed to doing real-world math.

Ut’s important for middle schoolers to explore math problems that are related to their everyday lives. Providing those entry points requires knowing what kids care about. From sports statistics to recipe conversions, math hooks can be found in any topic.

Have Fun Bring math into daily life by making a game out of something mundane. When your family dines out or goes grocery shopping, play your own version of “The Price Is Right,” to guess what the total cost will be. These days, that game may mean inviting kids to look at a grocery list and predict the total before adding items to a virtual shopping cart. Regardless, the same principles apply. The most useful thing for parents to do is to pay attention to the times in their own lives when they bump up against numbers or patterns, and instead of leaping to telling … think about how to engage their kids in that.

That process is less predictable than printing out a worksheet and checking a box on a daily schedule. It involves watching for opportunities and seizing the moment. There’s a lot of trust involved that injecting these conversations into our life over the long-span is going to be productive even if I can’t see it in the 15-minute chunks that school gets doled out in. If the only reading that kids ever did was the reading that happens in school, we would feel that something was lost, it's the same with maths!

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