Tag Archives: division

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.

Photo Oct 12, 2 13 41 PM

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.

Division and fractions with a third grader

I found some notes on a conversation I had with Griffin last fall. I do not remember the context for it.

g

Me: Do you know what 12÷2 is?

Griffin (8 years old): 6

Me: How do you know that’s right?

G: 2 times 6 is 12.

Me: What about 26÷2?

G: 13

Me: How do you know that?

G: There were 26 kids in Ms. Starr’s class [in first grade],  so it was her magic number. We had 13 pairs of kids.

Me: What about 34÷2?

G: Well, 15 plus 15 is 30…so…19

Here we see the role of cognitive load on mental computation. Griffin is splitting up 34 as 30 and 4 and finding pairs to add to each. Formally, he’s using the distributive property: 2(a+b)=2a+2b.

He wants to choose a and b so that 2a+2b=30+4.

But by the time he figures out that a=15, he loses track of the fact that 2b=4 and just adds 4 to 15.

At least, I consider this to be the most likely explanation of his words.

My notes on the conversation only have (back and forth), which indicates that there was some follow-up discussion in which we located and fixed the error. The details are lost to history.

Our conversation continued.

Me: So 12÷2 is 6 because 2×6 is 12. What is 12÷1?

G: [long pause; much longer than for any of the first three tasks] 12.

Me: How do you know this?

G: Because if you gave 1 person 12 things, they would have all 12.

Let’s pause for a moment.

This is what it means to learn mathematics. Mathematical ideas
have multiple interpretations which people encounter as they live their lives. It is (or should be) a major goal of mathematics instruction to help people reconcile these multiple interpretations.

Griffin has so far relied upon three interpretations of division: (1) A division statement is equivalent to a multiplication statement (the fact family interpretation, which is closely related to thinking of division as the inverse of multiplication), (2) Division tells how many groups of a particular size we can make (Ms. Starr’s class has 13 pairs of students—this is the quotative interpretation of division) and (3) Division tells us how many will be in each of a particular number of same-sized groups (Put 12 things into 1 group, and each group has 12 things).

This wasn’t a lesson on multiplication, so I wasn’t too worried about getting Griffin to reconcile these interpretations. Instead, I was curious which (if any) would survive being pushed further.

Me: What is 12 \div \frac{1}{2}?

G: [pause, but not as long as for 12÷1] Two.

Me: How do you know that?

G: Half of 12 is 6, and 12÷6 is 2, so it’s 2.

Me: OK. You know what a half dollar is, right?

G: Yeah. 50 cents.

Me: How many half dollars are in a dollar?

G: Two.

Me: How many half dollars are in 12 dollars?

G: [long thoughtful pause] Twenty-four.

Me: How do you know that?

G: I can’t say.

Me: One more. How many quarters are in 12 dollars?

G: Oh no! [pause] Forty-eight. Because a quarter is half of a half and so there are twice as many of them as half dollars. 2 times 24=48.

Summertime (or anytime) reading recommendations

A friend asked for tips on getting started understanding some new domains in mathematics teaching the other day. An experienced high school teacher, he wants to know more about  elementary and middle school topics, especially fractionsplace value and multiplication and division algorithms.

For obvious reasons (mainly that I won’t shut up about these topics), I was on his short list to ask for recommendations.

It occurred to me that others might be interested in this particular brain dump. So here it is, lightly edited. Enjoy.

Fractions. Entry level stuff on this is Connected Mathematics. In particular, Bits and Pieces 1Bits and Pieces 2, and Comparing and Scaling. Any version of these units is fine. Work the problems from the student edition; have the teacher edition there for guidance.

I made major progress on understanding student thinking when I constrained myself to using only ideas that must have come earlier (i.e. in elementary school) and to those that had been previously developed. When I tried to appreciate the problems on their mathematical merit, or to build connections to my undergraduate mathematics knowledge, I didn’t make much progress that was useful to working with kids.

Then turn to Extending Children’s Mathematics (written by the Cognitively Guided Instruction team—CGI—and published by Heinemann). There is a lovely research perspective that should give you new ways to think about the CMP stuff.

More advanced perspectives are to be found in the work of the Rational Number Project (RNP), and there’s Susan Lamon’s book, Teaching Fractions and Ratios for Understanding. For contrast, read Hung Hsi Wu’s Math for Teachers curriculum. For extra credit, write a comparative analysis paper reconciling Wu’s work with CGI and with RNP; argue which has the greater influence on the Common Core fractions development.

Conspicuously absent from these recommendations is the “Essential Understandings” series from NCTM, published relatively recently. I find the writing style of these texts hard to process. Others may recommend them, and if so, perhaps you ought to take them more seriously than I have been able to.

Place value. There is an oldish JRME piece by Karen Fuson, the CGI folks and another research team about place value. It’s a seminal piece and totally worth your time. There is no one book I can recommend; my exploration of the conceptual landscape of place value has been idiosyncratic and informed more by small pieces of others’ research work combined with my own classroom experience and experiments. Most of that is documented on this blog.

The “Orpda” number system that Cady and Hopkins wrote about (and which I bastardized as “Ordpa”) was foundational to these explorations. Short, short article but the ideas opened a whole new space for me in thinking about what it means to learn place value.

The Young Mathematicians at Work book on number sense, addition and subtraction is pretty good. But those articles and the blog are better starting points.

Multiplication and division algorithms. I am trying to recall how I came to know the algorithms I know. I have to say that these steps I cannot really retrace.  I am loathe to recommend digging through Everyday Math for them, because things are so diffuse; it’s hard to get the right book in your hand in that curriculum to learn any one particular thing.

The Kamii piece I recommended a while back is good. It was published in the 1998 NCTM Yearbook on algorithms. Sybilla Beckmann’s Mathematics for Elementary Teachers book is good, too.

But looking back at my standard algorithm diatribe last week and trying to think about what small set of resources would prep someone else to build a similar case (or to counter it), I am less clear than I am about fractions or place value. I do not know what this says about my knowledge, nor about the topic.

Partitive fraction division

As promised, more notebook pages on fraction division. This is based on the work I did a while back on trying to write authentic partitive division problems with fractional divisors. (As I wrote that last sentence, I reminded myself what a bizarre niche market I am trying to occupy on this here blog.)

I settled on situations involving fractional values of unit rates, such as the following.

If \frac{2}{3} of a lawn takes \frac{3}{4} of an hour, how much can I mow in one hour?

Before we begin, remember that if the problem were about 2 lawns in 3 hours, we would easily and naturally divide by 3. Only the numbers have changed, so the mathematical structure remains the same and we need to find \frac{2}{3} \div \frac{3}{4}.

Click each image to see it full size. If you’re into this sort of thing.

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Chicken skewers

Saturday was a great day. I took Tabitha to dance class, which afforded me an hour to do some reading. Then it was time for lunch and a great family tradition—Free First Saturday at the Walker Art Center.

For lunch, I chose Thai.

We shared an appetizer of chicken satays and Pad Thai. I felt guilty about the lack of adventure in my choices, then remembered that I was teaching my five year old to eat Thai food.

The satays arrived in short order.

Tabitha (five): Oh! Four of them. So we each get two.

I was hungry, so I let this go for a little while. Later, though, I followed up.

Me: You said we would each get two. What if there had been six skewers?

T: I don’t know. I don’t go that high.

T: Four and four. Or maybe three and three.

Me: Three and three. Good. What if there had been three skewers?

T: No answer.

Me: Why ‘no answer’?

T: Because one person gets two and the other person gets one. How is that fair?

Me: Hmmm. Good point. What could we do about that?

T: Split it in half.

Me: OK. Then how much would we each get?

T: I don’t know.

Me: Well, you’d get one whole one and a half. So 1\frac{1}{2} skewers.

T: Right.

Re-reading our campsite conversation from a few months back, I can see that she still isn’t ready to use fractions as numbers. They still don’t really answer how manyquestions in her mind.

After lunch, it was off to the Walker. Which is where we had this fabulous photograph taken. Like I said; Saturday was a great day.