• Kim BeswickEmail author


The professional literature in mathematics education is replete with calls to use tasks that are ‘authentic’, ‘relevant’ and related to ‘real life’ and the ‘real world’. Such activities are frequently advocated for their potential to motivate and engage students, but evidence of their ability to do so is rarely presented. This paper examines evidence in relation to the effectiveness of context problems in achieving their intended purposes and thereby contributing to enhanced student participation, engagement and achievement in mathematics education. It is argued that context problems are not a panacea and that categorising problems as contextualised or de-contextualised is less helpful than the consideration of more salient aspects of tasks that impact on their effectiveness. Such aspects also relate to the purposes for and affordances and limitations of particular tasks in relation to the purposes they are intended to serve, along with attention to the contexts in which students learn mathematics. Examples of theoretical and empirical programs built on these considerations are reviewed in terms of their potential to enhance participation, engagement and achievement in school mathematics.

Key words

authentic tasks mathematics education participation realistic contexts relevance student engagement understanding 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ainley, J., Pratt, D. & Hansen, A. (2006). Connecting engagement and focus in pedagogic task design. British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 23–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, A. (1994). Mathematics in context: Measurement, packaging and caring for our environment. School Science and Mathematics, 94(3), 146–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Australian Academy of Science (2006). Mathematics and statistics: Critical skills for Australia’s future: The national strategic review of mathematical sciences research in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Academy of Science.Google Scholar
  4. Beswick, K. (2009). School mathematics and mathematicians’ mathematics: Teachers’ beliefs about the nature of mathematics. In M. Tzekaki, M. Kaldrimidou & H. Sakonidis (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd annual conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (Vol. 2, pp. 153–160). Thessaloniki, Greece: IGPME.Google Scholar
  5. Boaler, J. (1993a). The role of contexts in the mathematics classroom: Do they make mathematics more real? For the Learning of Mathematics, 13(2), 12–17.Google Scholar
  6. Boaler, J. (1993b). Encouraging transfer of ‘school’ mathematics to the ‘real world’ through the integration of process and content; context and culture. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 25, 341–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boaler, J. (1994). When girls prefer football to fashion? An analysis of female under achievement in relation to realistic mathematics contexts. British Educational Research Journal, 20(5), 551–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Boaler, J. (2000). Mathematics from another world: Traditional communities and the alienation of learners. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 18(4), 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Boaler, J. (2004). Promoting equity in mathematics classrooms: Important teaching practices and their impact on student learning. Regular lecture at the International Congress on Mathematics Education. Copenhagen, Denmark.Google Scholar
  10. Carraher, D. W. (2008). Beyond ‘blaming the victim’ and ‘standing in awe of noble savages’: A response to “Revisiting Lave‘s cognition in practice’”. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 69, 23–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carraher, D. W. & Schliemann, A. D. (2002). Is everyday mathematics truly relevant to mathematics education? In M. E. Brenner & J. N. Moschkovich (Eds.), Everyday and academic mathematics in the classroom. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.Google Scholar
  12. Cobb, P. (2007). Putting philosophy to work: Coping with multiple theoretical perspectives. In F. K. Lester Jr. (Ed.), Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (Vol. 1, pp. 3–38). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.Google Scholar
  13. Committee for the Review of Teaching and Teacher Education (2003). Australia’s teachers: Australia’s future—advancing innovation, science, technology, and mathematics. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.Google Scholar
  14. Cooper, B. & Dunne, M. (1998). Anyone for tennis? Social class differences in children’s responses to national curriculum mathematics testing. The Sociological Review, 46(1), 115–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cooper, B. & Harries, T. (2002). Children’s responses to contrasting ‘realistic’ mathematics problems: Just how realistic are children ready to be? Educational Studies in Mathematics, 49, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cooper, B. & Harries, T. (2003). Children’s use of realistic considerations in problem solving: Some English evidence. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 22, 451–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Evans, J. (1999). Building bridges: Reflections in the problem of transfer of learning in mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 39, 23–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Freudenthal, H. (1968). Why to teach mathematics so as to be useful. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 1(1/2), 3–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gravemeijer, K. & Doorman, M. (1999). Context problems in realistic mathematics education: A calculus course as an example. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 39, 111–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Griffin, P. & Callingham, R. (2006). A 20-year study of mathematics achievement. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 37(3), 167–186.Google Scholar
  21. Grouws, D. A. & Lembke, L. O. (1996). Influential factors in student motivation to learn mathematics: The teacher and classroom culture. In M. Carr (Ed.), Motivation in Mathematics (pp. 39–62). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Google Scholar
  22. Illeris, K. (2009). Transfer of learning in the learning society: How can the barriers between different learning spaces be surmounted, and how can the gap between learning inside and outside schools be bridged? International Journal of Lifelong Learning, 28(2), 137–148.Google Scholar
  23. Jurdak, M. E. (2006). Contrasting perspectives and performance of high school students on problem solving in real world situated, and school contexts. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 63, 283–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kramarski, B., Mevarech, Z. R. & Arami, M. (2002). The effects of metacognitive instruction on solving mathematical authentic tasks. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 49, 225–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lesh, R., Middleton, J. A., Caylor, E. & Gupta, S. (2008). A science of need: Designing tasks to engage students in modelling complex data. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 68, 113–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Linchevski, L. & Williams, J. (1999). Using intuition in everyday life in ‘filling’ the gap in children’s extension of their number concept to include negative numbers. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 39, 131–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Masingila, J. O., Davidenko, S. & Prus-Wisniowska, E. (1996). Mathematics learning and practice in and out of school: A framework for connecting these experiences. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 31, 175–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Middleton, J. A. & Spanias, P. A. (1999). Motivation and achievement in mathematics: Findings, generalizations, and criticisms of the research. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30(1), 65–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Monroe, E. E. & Mikovch, A. K. (1994). Making mathematical connections across the curriculum: Activities to help teachers begin. School Science and Mathematics, 94(7), 371–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Norton, S. (2006). Pedagogies for the engagement of girls in the learning of proportional reasoning through technology practice. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 18(3), 69–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Planas, N. & Civil, M. (2002). Understanding interruptions in the mathematics classroom: Implications for equity. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 14(3), 169–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Stillman, G. (2004). Strategies employed by upper secondary students for overcoming or exploiting conditions affecting accessibility of application tasks. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 16(1), 41–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Stillman, G. & Galbraith, P. (1998). Applying mathematics with real world connections: Metacognitive characteristics of secondary students. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 36, 157–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stone, J. R., Alfeld, C. & Pearson, D. (2008). Rigor and relevance: Enhancing high school students’ maths skills through careers and technical education. American Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 767–795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sullivan, P., Tobias, S. & McDonough, A. (2006). Perhaps the decision of some students not to engage in learning mathematics in school is deliberate. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 62, 81–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. United States Department of Education (2008). Foundations for success: The final report of the national mathematics advisory panel. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.Google Scholar
  37. Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, M. (1999). Context problems and assessment: Ideas from the Netherlands. In I. Thompson (Ed.), Issues in teaching numeracy in primary schools (pp. 130–142). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, M. (2003). The didactical use of models in realistic mathematics education: An example from a longitudinal trajectory on percentage. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 54, 9–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, M. (2010). Reform under attack: Forty years of working on better mathematics education thrown on the scrapheap? No way! In L. Sparrow, B. Kissane & C. Hurst (Eds.), Shaping the future of mathematics education: Proceedings of the 33rd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (Vol. 1) (pp. 1–25). Fremantle, Australia: MERGA.Google Scholar
  40. Zevenbergen, R. & Zevenbergen, K. (2009). The numeracies of boatbuilding: New numeracies shaped by workplace technologies. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 7, 183–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© National Science Council, Taiwan 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of TasmaniaLauncestonAustralia

Personalised recommendations