By Kyle Treasure
Published on December 21, 2017

“The first thing I’d do to teach eighth-grade math is not teach eighth-grade math. I’d teach entrepreneurship.”

Andrew Coy, former teacher and current board chair of Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation, was one of five panelists who shared education innovations during a recent discussion hosted by Sutherland Institute.

Panelists discussed at-risk academic factors – including truancy, suspensions, and behaviorism – but Coy focused on the need to make learning relevant to students.

The truth is that putting curriculum into a real-world context is an innovation educators should use for all students – in addition to those who are at risk academically.

Most educators are strategic when it comes to curriculum. They seek to connect what a student is learning now to what they will learn in the next course or academic year. But why do we stop there? Why not connect what students are learning to later phases of their lives: careers, family, and home life?

Coy used an analogy to illustrate what traditionally happens in classrooms: The teacher announces that the class is going to eat bread – and that they are going to do so by eating six cups of flour, one package of yeast, and a tablespoon of salt. Out of context, the vision is lost, and each ingredient alone tastes disgusting.

As Coy mentioned, eighth-grade math concepts seem irrelevant to many students until they figure out how it can help them in later life. By teaching entrepreneurship through hands-on experiences, students will learn algebra in a way that matters. Rather than learning to “solve for the variable” as an abstract concept, students can learn about it as a step for making money in a business.

I was once an eighth-grader who hated math. Mathematics was a daily torture for me. I had a hard time making these abstract concepts tangible. I longed for the day when I could walk out of a math class and never return.

All that changed when I walked into my first math class in college. The aptly named Math for the Real World course focused on math anyone would use throughout his or her life. We calculated our taxes, used statistics to predict the winner of an upcoming election, and planned out the dimensions and harvest of our future gardens. This innovative class changed how I looked at math. It was Andrew Coy’s declaration brought to life.

The importance of real-world education doesn’t go away once students graduate from high school. Career and technical education (CTE) programs are a great example of making education tangible as students launch into post-secondary schooling and careers.

Career and technical courses, by design, put learning into real-world situations. Students benefit from a course load that integrates academic content along with technical career skills and hands-on experiences because it gives learning meaning.

Plumbing, cosmetology or auto mechanics might be better than the traditional classroom at motivating students to learn core subjects. While programs like these exist, they aren’t talked about nearly enough at this point.

This shift in education is especially important for those at-risk students who have not always grown up with a strong school culture – those who may already see the workplace as a more relevant context than school.

The good news is we can do better. We can innovate how we approach education. We can also innovate what we believe an education should include.

All students – those at risk and those who aren’t – will excel when we show them the power of knowledge in a real-world context.

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Kyle Treasure is the Donor Relations Manager at Sutherland Institute.

Since joining Sutherland Institute in 2017, Kyle has used his skill set to further causes such as federalism, education, public lands, economics, and immigration. He has found a great opportunity to use his passions, (social media, video, radio, and the written word), to influence outcomes that will change lives for the better.

Kyle lives in Salt Lake City and enjoys hiking, Netflix, and spending hours in used bookstores.

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