5 ways to use topical and contextual problem solving to boost engagement in Maths

By Sophie Bessemer 

Try these topical problem solving and reasoning activities to bring context to your Maths lessons at Key Stage 2 and increase engagement for Year 5 and Year 6 in Maths. Includes a free topical problem solving resource to download and use in your class.

Follow the links below for the our Spring-term topical maths posts:

  1. Heart Month Months activities
  2. Shrove Tuesday Maths activities
  3. World Book Day Maths activities
  4. International Women's Day Maths activities
  5. British Science Week Maths activities
  6. Holi Maths activities
  7. Red Nose Day Maths activities
  8. Easter/Lent Maths activities

It’s been a long week, you sleepily hand out your Year 6 Maths problem solving activities carefully created to practise complex fractions and hear the immortal words ‘but what has this got to do with the real world?’ Any good teacher knows, of course, exactly how applicable Maths can be in the real world and how, without Maths, modern society as we know it would never have existed. The problem is, 11 year olds don’t - and you’re going to have a hard time convincing them. 

In defence of 11 year olds, education - maths in particular - can sometimes feel all too distant from what’s ‘real’. The curriculum can, at times, feel obscure and even useless. So the question becomes, how do we show young learners how Maths intersects and dominates our day to day life? How do we inspire our pupils, how do we change their perceptions and move beyond a fixed mindset? Likely a question that many a great Maths pedagog has lost countless hours of sleep over. 

And the answer is...topical and contextual problem solving activities for Maths.  

As Maths specialists, here at Third Space Learning we’re accustomed to Maths-related-insomnia and - in the countless waking hours - have reflected on methods of approaching this using topical and contextual problem solving resources and activities. 

Below are our five tips to optimize engagement through topical and contextual problem solving in Maths:

1. Date-based themes for Maths activities

Nothing solidifies Maths in the real world quite like the real world. Nearly, if not everyday of the year holds some significance to someone. February? Pancake day, Valentines Day, and Fairtrade Fortnight. March? Red Nose Day, World Book Day, and Holi. Why not spice your lesson up and throw in some Pancake Day Maths for ratios, or Bonfire Night Maths for measurements. Capitalise on special celebrations throughout the world to excite and enthuse young learners.

Free download: 

20 topical maths problems and investigations for June - July 2017

2. Trends and pop-culture based Maths investigations

Peers and pop culture hold huge sway over most pupils, as growing persons we want to fit in and find friends. Nothing achieves this more effectively than mutual interest. As a teacher, utilise it - whether this is measuring the speed of explosions in the latest Transformer film, or totalling the high notes in Disney’s Moana - you’ll have pupils hooked in no time. For the exceptionally savvy teacher, you might want to capitalise on the latest fads and trends within your school. How about measuring amounts via the infamous bottle trick, or examining angles through the lens of the dab?

3. Simple stuff to engage pupils with reasoning problems

It has been known for teachers to link Maths back to real world problems, politics, and the universe at large. Sometimes this works but, with younger students, it can still feel a little dissonant from the real. Don’t be afraid to stick with the simple stuff and the smaller aspects of the world. Everybody needs to know how much change they’ll have left over after a bus ride home, everyone wants to know exactly how many chocolate bars they can gorge themselves on with two pounds, everyone wants to know how many times they can go on the log-flume with five tickets. Keeping it simple can be one of the most effective ways to engage pupils by showing them the mathematics they will employ in every-day life.

4. Cool factor for primary teachers - even in Maths

Generally - note this is a generalisation - as a secondary teacher, one can spend eternity being uncool. Luckily primary school teachers get an easier rap, and KS2 level pupils are willing to be ‘wowed’. All students can be ‘wowed’ under the right circumstances, but with younger, more malleable minds it can be somewhat easier. Astronauts, magicians, superheroes, cute animals, cartoons, all carry the power of enthusiasm. They can be your secret weapon for making percentages fun - you’re not halving a number, you’re a magician halving a 167cm person in a special box, etc.

5. Relevance of mathematical problem solving resources

Relevance can be highly underrated when it comes to linking seemingly abstract topics to the real world. Here’s a trick, instead of distributing your problem solving activity sheets with strangers’ names and unrelatable allegories in the questions, why not make those names and allegories about your class. Instead of a stranger gathering four apples and eating three, make your pupil. Instead of apples, why not their favourite snack? Letting students pick names in questions gives them greater agency in their learning and can be highly engaging. Better still, putting their names/hobbies/likes/dislikes will not only show them that you know them, and that you care, but it will establish clear links between the work they are doing and the world proper.

Related free resources and blog posts 

To start you off with your topical and contextual Maths activities, try our free download of 20 topical problems based around key events in Summer 2017.

And if you're after more ideas here are some more to use in your own classroom: 

Hundreds of Contextual Maths ideas from @suffolkmaths:


A range of investigations, puzzles, and other problem solving activities from @primarystuff:


Money world problems resource from @twinklresources:


Super fun, super imaginative comic-book-based resources for Maths from @GrahamAndre and his Numeracy Shed



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