A fracas over fractions

recent story in USA Today, “Fractions Should Be Scrapped,” recalls an event several years ago when award-winning math professor Dennis DeTurck declared that “fractions have had their day.” DeTurck offered his 60 Second Lecture from an outdoor podium on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. In the digital age, DeTurck said, fractions are as obsolete as Roman numerals and only decimals should be taught to elementary students. In a forthcoming book, DeTurck will also make a case for de-emphasizing long division, the calculation of square roots, and by-hand multiplication of long numbers — especially for younger kids.

DeTurck, who is now Penn’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, may have been exaggerating for effect (“Everybody knows that questioning (axioms) often results in the most substantial gains in terms of progress,” he told a reporter), but the down-with-fractions story grabbed the attention of math mavens in our Teacher Leaders Network. Here are a few selected comments:

Mark, a high school science teacher, wrote:

I have actually listened to the 60 second lecture that he gave. My initial reaction was one of surprise. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if fractions wouldn’t be more appropriate later in a student’s math career. Too often we teach certain concepts in a certain order because we have always done it that way.

The scariest quote in this USA Today article is the one by the Penn State professor (who is president-elect of the American Mathematical Society). He said, “Math is hard. The idea that somehow we’re going to make math just fun is just a dream.”

Susan, a middle school teacher, commented:

Regarding the Penn State professor: Some people don’t get the difference in “hard” and “challenging.” Being “entertained” by learning addresses a deficit need. As soon as the deficit for amusement is met, the motivation is gone. On the other hand, work that is challenging can move a student toward self-fulfillment, which is self sustaining. Sounds like a professor who thinks it’s all about him — and whether you’re smart enough or tough enough to play his game.

David teaches high school English:

Can an English teacher chime in here?

When my two sons are eyeing what’s left of the pizza and talking about who gets the last slice, we don’t talk about how the family started out with 1.0 pizza, but now there’s 0.125 pizza, that one boy already had 0.375 and the other only had 0.25. (Mom and Dad usually only eat 0.125, along with a big salad, in case you’re adding it back up to 1.0).

Okay, in reality, we usually solve it by saying “you had three slices and he only had two.” But sometimes we talk about the fractions. And after all, if you’re learning to multiply and divide basic numbers, aren’t you going to come out thinking in fractions too, more than decimals? If four of my 28 students are absent, I’m thinking “one-seventh of my class is missing,” not “14.3 percent of my class is missing.”

Just my $0.02.

Cossondra was having none of it:

Wow, does this article get my math-teacher blood boiling! Do away with fractions? How will we learn ratios, rates, proportions — how will we develop number sense? To me, fractions are the true indicator of whether a student has  numerical literacy. If they GET fractions, everything else in math seems to fall into place. The reverse is also true.

Fractions are EVERYWHERE… just because we are in a digital age does not mean kids don’t need to understand math. A calculator is only as smart as the operator. If you can’t visual the problem, you cannot solve the problem, even with a calculator!

Grrr…. scrap fractions… maybe we should scrap DeTurck instead!!

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