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Throw Out The Fractions

Dennis DeTurck, a math professor at the University of Pennsylvania, believes teaching fractions to kids in the digital age is “as obsolete as Roman numerals are”.

He’s also not too fond of other major topics from our traditional mathematics curriculum.

DeTurck is stirring the pot again, this time in a book scheduled to be published next year. Not only does he favor the teaching of decimals over fractions to elementary school students, he’s taking on long division, the calculation of square roots and by-hand multiplication of long numbers.

As you might expect, he gets plenty of criticism from people who consider mastery of these arithmetical algorithms to be essential for students.

However, DeTurck has the far better argument in this debate.

DeTurck does not want to abolish the teaching of fractions and long division altogether. He believes fractions are important for high-level mathematics and scientific research. But it could be that the study of fractions should be delayed until it can be understood, perhaps after a student learns calculus, he said. Long division has its uses, too, but maybe it doesn’t need to be taught as intensely.

DeTurck believes teaching fractions to younger students can do more harm than good “by replacing confidence and understanding with confusion and memorization and by using up time that could be better spent understanding more about decimals and other things.”

He’s right. Large chunks of what we teach as “mathematics” in school, especially at the elementary level, fit this description.

Kids still need to understand the concepts of fractions and long division. What they don’t need is year after year of drills with no connection to anything in the real world (theirs or most adults).

It’s no wonder that by the time kids get to the point where they’re actually studying math (as opposed to arithmetic), they’re turned off to even a mention of the subject.

education, math, fractions, long division

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7 Comments

  1. come visit our school to watch math workshop. there is no more drill and kill memorization. everything, even fractions, is taught by teaching the concepts.

  2. I guess this professor never bakes. Try halving or doubling a batch of cookies without a basic knowledge of fractions!

  3. Tim

    Baking aside (just how big is a “pinch” of something, anyway? :-), there is still a need for students to understand the concept of fractions and fractional parts. Finding half of 2-1/2 cups of flour is one good, concrete example.

    But most elementary math curriculums I’ve worked with spend far too much time on strange algorithms like dividing fractions. Try explaining to a fourth grader what it means to divide 11/32 by 7/8, much less why they should have to learn how to do it in the first place.

  4. To echo a previous comment, this seems odd since fractions are so important in cooking. Relating them to a batch of cookies not only makes them real-world relevant, but very understandable. And I haven’t seen a recipe yet that called for .25 cups of sugar…

  5. Dave

    Cooking alone isn’t a good enough reason for me…my cooking measurements are things like “one Hot Pocket” and “one tube of cookie dough”…so I thought some more about it.

    There probably isn’t much flexibility to change how fractions are taught as long as the U.S. uses customary foot/gallon/pound measurements.

    Also, fractions probably have to be taught very soon after the concept of division, because almost all applications of division are most clearly written with fractions: dy/dx in calculus, sqrt(2)/2 in geometry, balancing equations in Algebra, etc.

  6. Students need to learn fractions in elementary school, while they are developing their number sense. We only teach what fractions are, adding and subtracting, and equivalent fractions in elementary school.

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