Paying a tithe (10% of earnings)

In Sunday School, I teach kids who are turning 7 this year. There is a lesson manual and a schedule to follow, but I like bringing in authentic tasks (especially when it is math-related!) whenever possible.

Today the lesson was “I can pay tithing.” We talked about the meaning of tithe (Merriam-Webster says: “to pay or give a tenth part of especially for the support of the church”).

I brought a sack of pennies (about one-year’s accumulation!) and gave each of the kids a pile. I asked them, “Find out how many pennies you have and then tell me how many pennies you’ll give for tithing.”

Multiple Answers

One child said, “I’ll give them all.” I responded, “Sure. You don’t have to give all of your pennies, but you can. Do you still want to?”  “Uh-huh.” “Why do you want to give all of them instead of just 10%?” “Well. I don’t need them. I could keep some.” After church was finished, he came running back to tell me “I kept some of my pennies but I put some on the ground so that someone can find it for a lucky penny!”

Another child said, “I’ll give 4 because I’ve got 43 pennies.” I responded, “Okay. How did you figure that out?” “It’s easy! Every time I count 10 pennies, I take one.”

Another child said, “Can I keep the extra pennies?” I responded, “Sure!” “Okay, I’ll give 17 because I have 39 pennies.” “Okay, how did you decide to give 17?” “Because it looks like half.” “Ok. You can decide how much you want to give. The church asks for 10% but it’s okay to give more. Do you still want to give 17?” “Uh-huh!”

I gave them each a tithing envelope, they filled out their own slip (mostly), put the pennies in the envelope, and brought them to the bishop.


Sometimes in textbooks a word problem is given and the question asks: “Which should you choose?” or “What’s the best choice for Rohit?” Those problems make me cringe because it is making an assumption that “optimization” means the same thing for everyone, especially when some context is given. In this example, the kids all have different reasons for wanting to keep or give away the pennies – some told me they have $20 or $30 at home to spend, so maybe they don’t value pennies much. Others were already making plans for how they would spend their pennies. Some kids are just too darn nice.

But, if I pushed them to only pay 10%, then it feels like I’m making an assumption that you should always give the minimum. At the same time, by not pushing them to pay only 10%, I feel like I’m telling them they should always pay more than the minimum. So, even for me, I’m not sure what the “right” response is in this real-world math problem.


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