21st century skills in high school mathematics

As a high school math teacher, there are many ways I can integrate 21st Century student learning experiences in my teaching.

As part of the “Math in the real world” assessment for my 10th grade algebra class, students are required to work in groups and create a word problem based on that week’s lesson content. This allows students to use their creativity and to work collaboratively as the only constraint is to use mathematics studied that week. Students then need to solve the problem, showing all their work, and are encouraged to find different ways to get to the answer. Students then share their solutions on the class’ private forum (Moodle platform) and comment on each other’s work, to ask for clarification, make corrections or offer advice on improving the solution. They can then modify their solution accordingly. As the 10th Commandment of Computer Ethics states (Computer Ethics Institute, 2005), all communication has to be respectful and considerate, and I moderate the forum to ensure the respect of this rule.

conversion between metric and us customary systemsMy students are all Chinese students preparing to attend college in the United States once they graduate from high school. In China, the International System of Units (SI) is used and students have a lot of trouble understanding the United States customary units. To address this difficulty, I introduce American units over the course of one week. As students learn how to relate ounces and pounds, inches and feet, we also focus on the learning outcome “Students analyze how parts of a whole interact with each other in mathematical systems” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011). One of the activities that week is to find “tricks” to convert quickly between different American units and SI units. Students will also research apps for their smartphone that can convert between SI and customary units, and check their accuracy. To increase their global awareness, students are then look up different measuring systems, historical and current, as well as how they were established and comment on their origin. At the end of the week, we hold a debate to discuss which system is better and why.

11th grade students have a class on obesity and its health impacts each year which coincide with the introduction to statistics. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills provides an excellent cross-disciplinary activity: the 2004 report from the Centers for Disease Control on the yearly number of death due to obesity. While learning about health factors, they study the difference between correlation and causation, and how statistics can be used to mislead people. Students then look for other examples of misuse of statistics and, in groups, create a video explaining how statistical messages can be twisted to influence beliefs and behaviors with numbers used inappropriately. This is also the occasion, in collaboration with the Computer Science class, to address intellectual property, copyright and plagiarism issues. It is very important to teach the 8th Commandment of Computer Ethics, “Thou shalt not appropriate other people’s intellectual output” (Computer Ethics Institute, 2005), as plagiarism is a not considered a problem by most Chinese students.

Financial literacy is an integral part of the 11th grade curriculum. During the first semester, students learn how to calculate prices given discounts or profit margins, IBR_tabledetermine the amount of tax owed or the refund due from a taxable income and regular tax payments, and calculate loan repayment quantities by different methods. Students use spreadsheets and financial functions in their graphing calculators to solve real world problems of interest to them, usually involving repaying student loans. Investment models are also discussed in relation to the Business class, with students comparing different investment options and discussing suitability for their virtual shop model.

The largest cross-discipline project occurs at the end of the 1st semester of grade 11. In a collaborative project between the English Listening & Speaking, English Reading & Writing, Business, Government & Civics, and Mathematics courses, students learn about the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 in Business class. They then focus on systemic risk, propose ways to limit it and discuss the ethical implications of mathematically-based decisions in Math class. In English Reading & Writing class they work in groups to write an argumentative essay presenting and supporting their chosen way to limit systemic risk. Finally, in Government & Civics and English Listening & Speaking, they prepare a “House of Representative” debate of a new federal law on the issue.

rmt64ddThe final example of the integration of 21st Century Skills that I will mention here occurs during the 2nd semester of grade 11. In Calculus class, we study the exponential rate of growth/decay and the Verhulst-Pearl logistic function. We apply these to many health and environmental issues, such as population growth with the notable example of invasive species such as the Nile Perch, or the spread of viruses. Each class ends with a discussion of these issues.

There are many more examples of how I integrate 21st Century student learning experiences in my high school math classes, and these were central to the design of the new grade 10 curriculum which will be used next year, along with the Common Core State Standards.


Computer Ethics Institute. (2005, May). The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics. Retrieved from http://cpsr.org/issues/ethics/cei/

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011, January). 21st Century Skills Math Map. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/P21_Math_Map.pdf