This is a debate that happens a lot in schools. Should kids be taught abstract mathematical rules, or should those be slipped into real-world problems like figuring our train schedules or buying baskets of apples? I think the answer is both, that abstract thinking is essential for mastering higher math, and also that connecting strings of numbers to actual objects is a useful entree to that sort of thinking. A new study out of Ohio State makes the case:
The real take-away here is that you should teach your classes with a balance of both. Your kids will will come in with their own strengths and preferences: some will love stories about sales taxes and zoo animals, while others can’t be bothered and would rather pound out a page of equations. Both of those kids need to build their skills in the other categories. We are working with bright kids, and you are tasked with building out and broadening their skills so that they can compete. Don’t let them rest on their laurels. Find what they’re good at, and use that confidence to push them in the other areas.