• Question: "certainly thematic learning and providing context for content can really help students learn." (Question answer by Susanna) Is this true? What evidence is there to support this idea?

    Asked by Ab on 19 Mar 2018.
    • Photo: Camilla Gilmore

      Camilla Gilmore answered on 19 Mar 2018:

      In mathematics education research there has been a lot of debate about whether providing context helps children learn mathematical concepts and procedures compared to abstract symbolic approaches. The Realistic Mathematics Education (RME) approach developed in the Netherlands is focused on using realistic situations to introduce mathematical ideas before moving to abstract problems. There is some information about RME here (http://mei.org.uk/rme). The EEF is currently undertaking an evaluation of RME in the UK in Key Stage 3 mathematics (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/realistic-maths-education/).
      Supporters of context-rich approaches suggest that using context allows children to use real-world knowledge to help them understand mathematical ideas and might improve memory by recalling real-world actions (e.g. sharing sweets as a model for understanding division). However, other researchers caution that using real-world contexts involves unnecessary details which can distract children from the relevant information and that children can struggle to transfer knowledge to new problems in different contexts. At the moment the research evidence is mixed, but it is possible that the benefits of context vs. symbolic approaches may differ from topic to topic.