Fractions: learning something new

Yesterday was a complete surprise to me. I learnt something new about maths. And I enjoyed it.

Without trying to show off, I do know a lot of maths. I won’t bore you with too many of the details, but I am both interested in maths and quite good at it. I recognise that there are a lot of people who are much better than me – without some of those people I would never have got through my ‘A’ level maths (thanks Greg, thanks Yao) nor my Engineering degree (thanks, Jim, thanks Dan). However, in primary teaching I haven’t met too many of those people. Most of my colleagues are good at teaching maths, but would say that it is not their main interest. Some would demonstrate an enthusiasm for a particular branch of maths, whilst a few would express some negativity about areas of maths, particularly at the higher levels of the primary age range.

Yesterday’s topic at the local area meeting of the MAST programme was ‘fractions’ – an area of maths which usually generates the word ‘Hmph’ from children, parents and teachers alike. I was so excited by some of the fractions problems we attempted I took them straight back to school the next day and filmed my Year 6 children trying to solve them. Here’s the video:

Hopefully you can see how the children progressed in the lesson. Many of the children, despite being the most able in the school, had quite a negative attitude to solving problems involving fractions. Through using models and images the children now have a better conceptual understanding of fractions – they have linked the visual to the concrete – and are now ready to move on to using the abstract: numerical fractions themselves.

It struck me that as teachers we often move too quickly from the concrete to the abstract. If the highest ability children needed this level of input to begin to ‘get it’, then younger children and less able will need far more input at the concrete and visual stage before they move on to the abstract. This makes complete common sense, but in our overly prescriptive curriculum, how often do we rush children on to using and failing with the numbers when they don’t get the concept?

So if two and half men take two and half days to dig two and half trenches, how many trenches can one man dig in one day?

My answer was one trench and I was completely wrong. The feeling was exquisite – some maths that I didn’t get. My table group had to work hard to try and solve the problem and we still didn’t get it. Finally when someone provided a solution and the concept started to sink in it was marvellous to realise that I had been challenged with something and learnt something new as a consequence.


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