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.