## Children’s experiences with partitioning [TDI 3]

If you watch this video, you will see a pretty standard U.S. treatment of introductory fraction material.

PLEASE understand that this is not about Sal Khan or Khan Academy. What you see in that video is what happens in many, many elementary classrooms across the U.S. on any given day. It is what is written into our textbooks (pre-Common Core, of course—we’ll get to Common Core in week 6).

I did not have to work very hard to find additional examples to support my claim. Here is a tutorial on Sophia. Here is something from “Your destination for math education”. And here is a self-paced math tutorial at Syracuse.

I am not cherry picking straw men here.

To be clear, we introduce fractions with a part-whole model. A circle (or rectangle) represents the whole. We cut the circle (or rectangle) into some number of equal-sized pieces—that number is the denominator. We shade some of those pieces—that number is the numerator. That I am pointing this out surely makes some Decimal Institute attendees uncomfortable because how could it be any different? I’ll get to that in a moment. Stick with me here as I build a case pertaining to decimals.

If you believe that defining an abstract mathematical object and then operating on that object is the most powerful way to teach mathematics, then there is no logical objection to starting fraction instruction with decimals.

After all, children know something about our base-10 place value system by the time they get to third grade. They know something about the decimal point notation by then, too, as the result of money and (sometimes) measurement. (Oh, and calculators—don’t forget the calculators.)

So why not put all of that together and have tenths—the very heart of the territory to the right of the decimal point—be the first fractions they study? If you believe that children learn mathematics as a logical system that is little influenced by their everyday experience then there is no reason not to.

From a logical perspective, halves and tenths are the same sorts of objects. Tenths come along with a handy notation and so—from a logical perspective—are simpler than halves.

Indeed, it is much much easier to train children to get correct answers to decimal addition problems than it is to train them to get correct answers to fraction addition problems—even when the fraction addition problems have common denominators. (Sorry, no research link on this. Ask your nearest upper elementary or middle school teacher whether I am talking nonsense here.)

But we cannot fool ourselves into believing that ease of obtaining correct results has any correlation with grasping underlying concepts. Children can be trained to give correct answers without having any idea what the symbols they are operating on represent.

Take the video linked here, for example. (In it, I do a Khan Academy exercise using a purposely flawed way of thinking and score approximately 90%—I get an A without showing that I know anything useful.)

This leads us to the work of the Cognitively Guided Instruction (or CGI) research project from the University of Wisconsin. This project studied the ideas about addition and subtraction situations, and strategies for working them out, that children have before formal instruction begins.

It turns out that they know a lot.

Of particular importance is their finding that when teachers know how students are likely to think about addition and subtraction problems, and when teachers know the strategies students are likely to use, these teachers are more effective at teaching addition and subtraction.

In short, CGI demonstrated—for addition and subtraction—that better understanding the cognitive structure of addition and subtraction makes you a more effective teacher.

In the years since that first set of results, the team has extended their results to initial fraction ideas. In the book Extending Children’s Mathematics, they argue that the cognitive way into fractions with children is fair sharing.

That is, the ideas that children bring to school prior to formal instruction having to do with fractions are those that come from sharing things. Sharing cookies, cupcakes, couches and pears; children have cut or broken these things in half, considered whether the resulting pieces are equal in size, and decided whether the sharing is fair many times before they study fractions in school.

When you do start with fair sharing, children’s ideas about how to do this follow a predictable path. Halving and halving again are common early ideas even when sharing among three or five people. Similarly, children share incompletely early on. When they need to share one cookie among 3 people, they will suggest cutting into 4 pieces and saving the fourth for later.

This more recent CGI research demonstrates that paying careful simultaneous attention to (1) the number of things being shared, and (2) the number of people doing the sharing is a late-developing and sophisticated skill that comes as an end product of instruction.

You can see this in a conversation I had with my children over the weekend (written up in full on Talking Math with Your Kids).

In that conversation, we had 2 pears to share among 3 of us (real pears, not textbook pears). Griffin (9 years old) suggested cutting them into thirds, but then got distracted by the campfire before correctly naming the amount we would each get. Tabitha (6 years old) worked with me to half and half again. Only once we had a single remaining piece right there in front of us did she suggest cutting that piece into 3 pieces.

The concrete conversation created a need for thirds. But thirds only occurred to her once that need existed. As long as we had whole pears or halves of pears, we could keep cutting in half.

Here was the end result of that sharing.

Now back to decimals.

The CGI fraction work constitutes persuasive evidence that not all fractions are cognitively equivalent. While starting the study of fractions with tenths makes sense from a logical perspective, CGI demonstrates that children do not learn from logical first principles.

They learn by considering their experience.

Children have lots of experience with halves. We might expect thirds to be just as obvious to children as halves are, but it isn’t true.

So let’s take seriously the idea that experience in the world has an effect on how children learn. And let’s accept that this fact should have an effect on curriculum design.

Then if you still want to teach decimals before fractions, you would have a responsibility to demonstrate that children have anywhere near the real-world experience with tenths that they do with halves and thirds.

When we discussed on Twitter recently children’s real-world experience with tenths, we came up with:

• money (where the connection to fractions is weak, see also week 2′s discussion on Canvas),
• pizzas (about which I am skeptical, see next week’s interlude),
• metric measurements, and
• not much else.

In comparison to the tremendous amount of work children have done with halves and halves of halves (and halves of those), how can tenths be the first fraction they study in school?

## Summary

To summarize, I am arguing:

• That part-whole fraction work makes logical sense to experienced fraction learners,
• That children do not learn fractions by logical progression from definitions, but by connecting to their experiences with situations in which fractions arise in their everyday lives,
• That we have research evidence for this latter claim,
• That the truth of this claim should have implications for how we teach decimals to children, since their experiences with tenths are much less robust than their experiences with simpler fractions, and that chief among these implications is…
• That we ought to reserve serious decimal work until kids have developed the major fraction ideas about partitioning, repartitioning and naming the units that result.

## Reflections on teaching

I am working on a ton of interesting projects right now. Not least of these is my classroom teaching at the community college. My fingertips are sore from typing.

And yet there is always more to say. More to think about. More conversations to have. Here is a peek into one that is ongoing.

Malke Rosenfeld and I have been going back and forth about math, dance, Papert and learning for a few months now. I am learning a lot from the conversation. She asked some questions this morning.

Malke: A thought just entered my head — why are you offering TDI? Is it based on a question you are unsure of and want to see what others think? Or are you seeing a deficit in math teachers’ thinking that you want to shore up?

Me: When ranting on Twitter, I could see that some of my assumptions about baseline teacher knowledge about fraction/decimal relationships as they pertain to developing children’s thinking were unfounded. That is, I was assuming teachers knew a lot more than they seemed to. Which has implications for my Khan Academy critiques, and lots of other writing on my blog. Yet people were also curious. So I wanted to say more in a way that would draw from and build on a larger collective knowledge, so it’s not just my spouting off.

Malke: Is there a reason you offered it specifically as a course, and not a moderated discussion (which it sort of seems like right now)?

Me: When you view learning as a social process, you tend to think of courses AS moderated discussions. I mean this quite seriously. I know that it goes against the grain of online (and face-to-face) course design. But that’s not because I think of online instruction differently from others; it’s because I have a particular view of learning that runs much deeper than that. If I tell and quiz, you’re not learning very much. If I propose a set of ideas, listen to what you have to say, encourage you to interact with others and move the conversation in directions that seem useful based on those interactions, you’re probably going to learn a lot.

As long as I can keep you engaged in that process. Which is a different challenge online than in the classroom.

Malke: Is there a place you specifically want your students to get to by the end of the seven weeks?  Or are you just curious to see what develops?

Me:  I am curious to learn what I can about teaching at every opportunity. I want to produce “students” who can articulate important questions (see? learning as having new questions to ask?) about curricular approaches to decimals. Ideally, I would help them to develop a critical voice that speaks to/through them when they work with individual students, when they plan lessons and when they talk with their colleagues in a variety of settings. In short, I want to change the way teachers view the territory of decimals, fractions and children’s minds. Strange mix of lofty and specific there, huh?

## Money and decimals [TDI 2]

Week 2 of the Decimal Institute begins with a claim that many experienced teachers will find obvious.

Namely: Decimals are difficult.

When students struggle with difficult things, it is the teacher’s instinct—indeed the teacher’s job—to help.

When students struggle with decimals, we frequently refer to money. The idea is this: Kids understand money. They are familiar with the notation of money which is based on decimal notation. They are familiar with the language of money: quarters, nickels, pennies, et cetera (bear with us, you folks from non-dollar nations, and do your best to follow the argument; we’ll wait for you if you need to Google something—I would need to do the same for shillings.) Students can bring their knowledge of money to bear on understanding decimals.

While I have no doubt that money has been helpful for students to get correct answers to particular problems, nor even that money can be the basis for students to build particular ideas about decimals (e.g. that $\frac{1}{4}=0.25$); I do have some critical questions about whether money is a strong foundation for building generalized decimal concepts.

Among these questions are the following.

1. If money is such a strong basis for decimal concepts, why do we so often see decimal errors with money?

The Gallery of Misplaced Decimals
(You may click to enlarge each one if you like)

2. Is it possible, as Max Ray suggests below, that the conception people tend to carry in their minds is of dollars and cents as separate units, as they do feet and inches?

I report my height as 6 feet 1 inch. I do not report it as $6\frac{1}{12}$ feet, although I know that I could. Likewise I don’t think of 1 hour and 5 minutes as $1\frac{5}{60}$ hours, although I know this to be correct.

Is it possible that many people think of $1.25 as 1 dollar and 25 cents, rather than as $1\frac{25}{100}$ dollars? Maybe students are thinking of dollars and cents as different units that have a nice conversion rate, rather than of dollars as the natural unit and cents as a partitioning of that unit. Follow-up questions: (a) Might Max’s insight help to explain the errors in the gallery of misplaced decimals? (b) What are the implications of this for using money to teach decimals? 3. Related to the foregoing: even when students do think of dollars and cents as more than just related units, is it possible that students are thinking of cents as the natural unit, and that dollars are built out of them? This would contrast with viewing dollars as the natural unit from which cents are partitioned. I asked this question on the blog back in January, and readers answered it differently from the class of future elementary teachers I posed it to at the same time. What can we learn from that difference? Is it just a coincidence that this table includes no fractions? From Wentworth’s Mental Arithmetic (circa 1895). Thanks to Monica Cataldo for the amazing find! 4. Even if we do think of 1 cent as $\frac{1}{100}$ of a dollar, does money support the repeated repartitioning that is essential to decimals? E.g. Find a number between 0.04 and 0.05. Does thinking about money support a student in getting to 0.041? 5. Finally, ask 100 sixth-graders how much money$0.1 is. I bet at least 30 of them say “1 cent”. Again, money seems to support particular decimal special cases, but does money help students generalize beyond those special cases to the important and challenging ideas underlying decimals?

Comments closed here. Let’s talk in the course and on Twitter under #decimalchat.

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## True confessions

Here are two questions we can ask about educational technology.

The differences between them are important.

1. Is the activity this technology supports more intellectually stimulating than what children would otherwise be doing?
2. Is the activity this technology supports more intellectually stimulating than what children should otherwise be doing?

I will confess, here, now and publicly that I hold (for example) Khan Academy to the latter standard.

And, it seems to me, the typical defense of Khan Academy is that it should only be held to the former.

What made this difference especially salient for me was a recent article in the New York Times, which describes (among other things) a waffle-cutting app on the iPad. (See video at this link.)

Now, it seems to me that the children in the study were telling the researchers that there is something inappropriate about the activity when the 2-year old was trying to taste the waffle, and the 4-year olds needed to be coerced into not tap, tap, tapping everything on the screen.

But if we imagine a perfected version of the app, optimized for the ways 4-year olds interact with electronics, then we can ask those two questions about the idealized waffle-cutting app.

If kids are cutting virtual waffles in a daycare environment that otherwise provides little to no math talk, then perhaps this app would be an improvement. But I cannot really imagine an app that would be better than having children cut real waffles and talk about the nature of their activity with sympathetic adults as they do so.

I cannot imagine a virtual waffle app that is better than what 2—4 year olds should be doing, which is talking math.

## Another great question from College Algebra

Here is something cool that happened in College Algebra today. We were doing a short thing to summarize our domain and range work before moving on.

A student asked, Is the only way to find range to make a graph?

This stopped me in my tracks. I had not really thought about the knowledge I draw on when identifying the range of a function, and the question cut to the heart of the matter.

My gut instinct answer was yes. But I wanted to explore that a little. I concocted a silly function to do so. $\sqrt[3]{x^{5}+x^{2}}+x^{2}-sin(x)$. I wanted to say that I would need to graph that to know its range.

But the longer I looked at it, the more clear it was that I knew a lot about this silly thing without graphing it. The $x^{2}$ term dominates, for instance, in the long run, so I know it goes to infinity on both sides of the y-axis. I could see that 0 is in both the domain and the range.

But I wasn’t 100% sure whether there were any negative values for the function.

Later in the day, this got me thinking about end behavior. This is why we teach that end behavior silliness, right? It’s not about end behavior, it’s about knowing what values can come out of a function, and having a basis for knowing this.

I am brainstorming here. The point is that the student question showed a sign of her learning, and it pushed me to rethink something too. Win-win.

Another cool thing happened, too. We were comparing $y= x^{2}$ and $y=2^{x}$, looking for sameness and difference. I had to push to get domain and range on the table.

We agreed that the two functions have the same domain—all real numbers. We were split on whether they have the same range.

But not for the reason I expected. Not at all.

A student argued that The only time when they are the same is when x=2. Therefore they do not have the same range.

My students found this argument compelling.

Ignore the second intersection point in the left half-plane. Focus on the essence of the argument.

Do these functions have the same range? is interpreted as Do these functions intersect?

That seems like a useful insight into the mind of a College Algebra student.

## Decimals before fractions? [TDI 1]

The Khan Academy knowledge map got me thinking about this recently, but the basic question at the heart of this Institute has been on my mind for a very long time.

Does it make sense to study decimals before fractions?

The Khan Academy knowledge map. Decimals lie beneath addition and subtraction in the hierarchy. Fractions are not in this part of the map; they are far off to the lower left.

We do not have to answer that question right away. Indeed I do not think that there is a simple answer. I will argue in the coming weeks that the preponderance of theoretical and empirical evidence points to no.

You are not obligated to agree with me.

As I worked on formulating an argument the other night, I tried to make my question more concrete. Here is what I came up with (via Twitter):

Now, Twitter is a medium that makes nuance difficult.

So let’s strive to find nuance, subtlety and complexity in this conversation.

That last question is an important one for me. Traditionally, U.S. curriculum has had students working with decimals before they work seriously with fractions. Khan Academy isn’t going against the curricular flow in this area. What this means is that one-tenth is the first fraction students study. Is this justified?

The arguments in favor of studying decimals before fractions include these:

Place value. Decimals are the logical extension of the whole-number place value system. Just as you go from 1 to 10 to 100 by moving one place to the left, you also go from 100 to 10 to 1 by moving one place to the right. When you move left, the value of the place is multiplied by a factor of 10; when you move right, the value of the place is divided by a factor of 10. Decimals just continue that process.

Money. Children come to school with experiences involving money. They know what one dollar is; they know that 10 dimes make up a dollar; they have seen \$1.25 and can talk about what that means. As a result, decimals are part of children’s everyday experience in a way that (say) sevenths are not.

Measurement. Metric measurements (and many but not all Imperial measurements) are expressed in units and tenths of units. Children are familiar with the meaning of “12.2 fluid ounces” or “3.2 meters”. So it makes sense to operate on tenths and hundredths even before formalizing the underlying mathematics of fractions.

How say you? Are these powerful arguments for you? Have I missed any arguments in favor of studying decimals before fractions? Do you have evidence to bring to bear on the question of whether it makes sense to study decimals first? Can you provide curricular examples to support (or refute) my claim that U.S. curriculum typically presents decimals before fractions? Can you provide an international perspective for us?

Instructions for joining the course:

This course has enabled open enrollment. Students can self-enroll in the course once you share with them this URL:  https://canvas.instructure.com/enroll/MY4YM3. Alternatively, they can sign up at https://canvas.instructure.com/register  and use the following join code: MY4YM3

## The Triangleman Decimal Institute [TDI]

In recent weeks, I have written several times about decimals and their treatment in curriculum. In discussions surrounding that writing, it has become clear to me that everyone involved in children’s learning of decimals can both learn and contribute to the learning of others.

Which is why I am excited to announce…

# The Triangleman Decimal Institute

For seven weeks, starting Monday, September 30, I will invite all interested parties to an online conversation about decimals and learning decimals.

Each Monday, I’ll have a new post here to launch and focus our discussions. Comments will be closed in order to move the discussions to more productive venues (see below).

You may participate in any way that you like, including the following:

2. Twitter. I invite you to use the #decimalchat hashtag to respond, argue, offer evidence and discuss.
3. Canvas. It is no secret that I love this LMS. I have established a course in Canvas. The course is public, free and you may self-enroll. We will mainly use the discussion forums there, which function MUCH better than WordPress comments for our purposes. I will establish a new discussion forum there for each week’s post, but students (i.e. you) can also create discussions.

You may come and go as you please.

My promise to you is to keep myself on the schedule in the syllabus below and to engage to the extent possible in the discussions on Twitter and Canvas.

## Syllabus

Come join us for some or all of the following.

Week 1 (Sept. 30): Decimals before fractions?

Week 2 (Oct. 7): Money and decimals.

Week 3 (Oct. 14): Children’s experiences with partitioning.

Week 4 (Oct. 21): Interlude on the slicing of pizzas.

Week 5 (Oct. 28): Grouping is different from partitioning.

Week 6 (Nov. 4): Decimals and curriculum (Common Core).

Week 7 (Nov. 14): Summary and wrap up.

There will be no grades, tests or tuition. Just the love of knowledge and the collective passion of teachers wanting to do their best.

See you in class on Monday!

Note from Canvas:

This course has enabled open enrollment. Students can self-enroll in the course once you share with them this URL:  https://canvas.instructure.com/enroll/MY4YM3. Alternatively, they can sign up at https://canvas.instructure.com/register  and use the following join code: MY4YM3