Real World Problem? Not At All!

THIS is the Edexcel Maths GCSE question that has been trending like crazy via #EdexcelMaths.

Hannah has 6 orange sweets and some yellow sweets.

Overall, she has n sweets.

The probability of her taking 2 orange sweets is 1/3.

Prove that: n^2-n-90=0

^ is “to the power of”


Although it has been ridiculed on twitter in various ways for it being so hard there is one thing that annoys me more that anything. It is described as a ‘real world problem’. This is not a real world problem in my view for a couple of reasons. It should also be noted this is not just limited to Edexcel but is also a feature of many different awarding bodies examination questions.

Reason 1

This cannot be called a ‘real world problem’ because it is not ‘real world’. Unless you are a Mathematician or Scientist, you would never use a calculation like this. I certainly have not. I have a degree, PGCE, been working for 20 years and have been a Business teacher for 11 years without needing this. That means that I have enough life experience in the ‘real world’ to suggest that it is not ‘real world’. If you are a Mathematician or a Scientist and say to me… “well I do use this!”… I would say that you are mad and you should be using your talents for a better use than working out how many sweets Hannah has. You should stick to working out bigger mathematical issues! I have an example of a proper Mathematical ‘real world problem’ later.

Reason 2

I also have an issue with using the term ‘real world problem’ in this type of question. In my view it simply is not a problem. I would argue that it is more of a puzzle that requires an answer which may be useful for a pub quiz. Why? Firstly, you know the way to solve the problem and secondly you just have to find an answer. I bet some are going… “eh, what is this guy talking about?”. Well think about it… In life we already know the answer to the problem or have a desired outcome. It is how you get to the desired outcome that is what we need to work out, which is the actual ‘problem’ to solve!

Let me give an example or three:

Firstly, you need to get a 10% deposit to buy your first house (desired outcome). How you get the 10% is the problem. Do you rob a bank (I am not advocating this as a serious choice), borrow from parents/family or save up for X years?

Secondly, As a teacher you know that the desired outcome for your class is that each child makes progress against their starting point based on data. The problem you have to solve is how to get them there. Good delivery of learning, praise, kick up the backside (not literally), formative assessment, catch-up classes for individuals. The answer is probably all of the above but by now you will understand what I mean.

Thirdly, I have just been watching ‘The Imitation Game’ (which is brilliant by the way). We all know the story about how a group of highly intelligent people have to solve the problem of working out the German codes during WWII. There is actually another more serious problem for the code breakers to solve but I will let you watch the film for that. Again, the desired outcome is to break the code. The problem is how they actually do it. They were a team of brilliant Mathematicians who were using their knowledge to solve a problem and to get to a desired outcome.

THIS is therefore not either ‘real world’ learning, a ‘problem’ or even a ‘real world problem’. The questions on many exam papers have many flaws when it comes to real world learning. Of course, as a teacher you cannot do anything about this really. You have to teach the young people to pass these types of exams and to be able to tackle questions on an exam paper. I just wish that the awarding bodies would actually create questions that really mean something. To help young people to be fully prepared for the real world and scenarios that they will come across.




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