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The Importance of Learning to Solve Real-Life Problems

Some children have a poor grasp of basic math concepts.

Key points

  • Some children do not know how to apply basic math to real-life situations.
  • Poor math ability may be related to ease of payment by credit or debit cards.
  • Children may not have the opportunity to comparison shop in stores.
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As part of rapport building with my pediatric patients, sometimes we challenge each other with riddles. I have been unpleasantly surprised by the number of adolescents who appear unable to guess a simple real-life math “word” problem reasonably. Hence, it is clear that these children have either not been exposed to such concepts at school or home or that their education has been insufficient to retain adequate knowledge to solve such problems.

This is the riddle I have posed:

The Oatmeal Conundrum

For a long time, I have often started off my day at my favorite restaurant by buying a bowl of sumptuous porridge that consists of oatmeal mixed with almond milk, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, bananas, and slivered almonds. Yes, it is as delicious as it sounds. Because of inflation, the price of a bowl has crept up over the years to $12.

Recently, I placed my usual order, but I was given only half my usual amount of oatmeal. I asked the server if they could give me some extra oatmeal. The server replied that I could place an order for a half-serving that would cost $7. I responded that I didn’t want an additional half serving that included all of the fruit but rather just some more oatmeal to have my usual amount.

The manager came out to let me know that, according to the new owner of the restaurant, the chefs have been giving too much oatmeal for a long time, which the restaurant cannot afford. Therefore, I should expect to receive less oatmeal regularly. I asked how much he would charge for extra oatmeal. He said $3, but it’s up to the discretion of the different daily managers how much they would charge for the extra oatmeal, which was an off-menu item.

This new hurdle to receiving my usual amount of oatmeal seemed unreasonable and expensive. And this brings us up to the question I ask my patients: How much do you think the ingredients of the bowl of oatmeal cost the restaurant?

The Cost of Ingredients

Much to my dismay, the majority of my patients up to the age of 15 (ninth-tenth grade!) have replied that the ingredients would cost the restaurant anywhere between $12-18.

When they respond so, I clarify that I am talking about how much the restaurant had to pay for the ingredients in my single bowl of oatmeal, for which they charge me $12. Typically, the children do not change their initial answer.

I then suggest we perform a thought experiment. Let’s say that the ingredients cost $15, and the restaurant charges me $12. How much profit would the restaurant make on each bowl they sell? Unfortunately, this question also stymies half of the kids. It seems as if a question involving numbers does not engage their thinking process. Some offer $3 profit as the answer. Others figured out that the restaurant would lose money on each bowl. When I ask if there is anything wrong with that, again, it’s typically only the older children who recognize that the restaurant cannot remain in business by taking a loss on every sale.

Very few patients recognize that the ingredients must cost much less than $12.

I inform my patients that the cost of the ingredients is around $2. I then ask another math-type question. How much would my request for extra oatmeal cost the restaurant?

Only half of my patients provide an answer of less than $2. I explain that oatmeal is very inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk. I suggest that the cost of the extra oatmeal may be around 50 cents.

What Should the Manager Do?

I then ask the bonus non-math follow-up question: How much should the manager charge me for the extra oatmeal?

My small number of math-minded patients calculate that since the extra oatmeal costs 25 percent of the price of all the ingredients, the charge for the extra oatmeal should be 25 percent of the $12 sale price of the oatmeal, which is $3. The rest offer answers varying from 50 cents to $7.

I suggest the correct answer might be that there should be no charge. We discuss how this answer could be reasonable since the restaurant would lose some money with this kind of transaction. This is when I explain about the importance of customer satisfaction and that there are costs associated with retaining a customer. In that light, a giveaway of 50 cents of oatmeal seems like a good bargain for a restaurant owner.

While I don’t expect that my patients would figure out the “correct” answer to this bonus question, going through discussion of this question is an example of how we might better teach children how to tackle real-life issues.


By tenth grade, most students have already been taught algebra and elementary statistics, and some are even studying trigonometry. Yet, many do not seem to know how to apply basic math to real-life situations.

Reasons for their poor basic math abilities may include insufficient drilling at school and home, lack of opportunities to engage in comparison shopping in stores, and the ease of payment by credit or debit card so that the parent and child do not have to focus on ensuring they have sufficient cash on hand.

As a society, we should be very concerned that our children do not have a sufficient grasp of math to deal successfully with common financial challenges. The first step to rectifying the situation is to recognize the problem. Perhaps, repeatedly challenging our children to use math and common sense in real-life situations can help them become more aware of significant gaps in their knowledge and prompt them to fill such gaps.

More from Ran D. Anbar M.D.
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