# Reblog: A Mathematical Trauma

Feature photo (above) by Jimmie via flickr.

My 8-year-old daughter’s first encounter with improper fractions was a bit more intense than she knew how to handle.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:

Photo (right) by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr.

Nearing the end of Miquon Blue today, my youngest daughter encountered fractions greater than one. She collapsed on the floor of my bedroom in tears.

The worksheet started innocently enough:

$\frac{1}{2} \times 8=\left[ \quad \right]$

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# More Than One Way to Solve It

Photo by Eirik Newth via flickr.

In a lazy, I-don’t-want-to-do-school mood, Princess Kitten was ready to stop after three math problems. We had gotten two of them correct, but the last one was counting the ways to paint a cube in black and white, and we forgot to count the solid-color options.

For my perfectionist daughter, one mistake was excuse enough to quit. She leaned her head against me as we sat together on the couch and said, “We’re done. Done, done, done.” If she could, she would have started purring — one of the most manipulative noises known to humankind. I’m a soft touch. Who can work on math when there’s a kitten to cuddle?

by tanjila ahmed via flickr

Still, I managed to squeeze in one more puzzle. I picked up my whiteboard marker and started writing:

DONE
DOEN
DNOE
DENO
DNEO
ONED
ODNE

# The (Mathematical) Trouble with Pizza

Photo by George Parrilla via flickr.

Kitten complained that some math programs keep repeating the same kind of problems over and over, with bigger numbers: “They don’t get any harder, they just get longer. It’s boring!”

So we pulled out the Counting lessons in Competition Math for Middle School. [Highly recommended book!] Kitten doesn’t like to compete, but she enjoys learning new ideas, and Batterson’s book gives her plenty of those, well organized and clearly explained.

Today’s topic was the Fundamental Counting Principle. It was review, easy-peasy. The problems were too simple, until…

Pizzas at Mario’s come in three sizes, and you have your choice of 10 toppings to add to the pizza. You may order a pizza with any number of toppings (up to 10), including zero. How many choices of pizza are there at Mario’s?

[The book said 9 toppings, but I was skimming/paraphrasing aloud and misread.]

• Can you figure out the answer?

# Quotable: What to Do When You’re Stuck

When a kid is feeling bad about being stuck with a problem, or just very anxious, I sometimes ask him to make as many mistakes as he can, and as outrageous as he can. Laughter happens (which is valuable by itself, and not only for the mood — deep breathing brings oxygen to the brain). Then the kid starts making mistakes. In the process, features of the problem become much clearer, and in many cases a way to a solution presents itself.

## Does It Work?

While I was collecting entries for the Math Teachers at Play #35 blog carnival, I ran across this post by Dave Lanovaz:

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# If It Ain’t Repeated Addition, What Is It?

[Photo by SuperFantastic.]

Keith Devlin’s latest article, It Ain’t No Repeated Addition, brought me up short. I have used the “multiplication is repeated addition” formula many times in the past — for instance, in explaining order of operations. But according to Devlin:

Multiplication simply is not repeated addition, and telling young pupils it is inevitably leads to problems when they subsequently learn that it is not.

I found myself arguing with the article as I read it. (Does anybody else do that?) If multiplication is not repeated addition, then what in the world is it?

# Diagnosis: Math Workbook Syndrome

Photo by otisarchives3.

I discovered a case of MWS (Math Workbook Syndrome) one afternoon, as I was playing Multiplication War with a pair of 4th grade boys. They did fine with the small numbers and knew many of the math facts by heart, but they consistently tried to count out the times-9 problems on their fingers. Most of the time, they lost track of what they were counting and gave wildly wrong answers.

# How to Teach Math to a Struggling Student

photo by MC Quinn via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Paraphrased from a homeschool math discussion forum:

Help! My daughter struggles with arithmetic. I guess she is like me: just not a math person. She is an outstanding reader. When we do word problems, she usually has no trouble. She’s a whiz at strategy games and beats her dad at chess every time. But numbers — yikes! When we play Yahtzee, she gets lost trying to add up her score. The simple basics of adding and subtracting confuse her.

Since I find math difficult myself, it’s hard for me to know what she needs. What’s missing to make it click for her? She used to think math was fun and tested well above grade level, but I listened to some well-meaning advice and totally changed the way we were schooling. I switched from using workbooks and games to using Saxon math, and she got extremely frustrated. Now she hates math.

# 500 (?) and Counting

Photo by rileyroxx.

Could this be my 500th post? That doesn’t seem possible, even counting all those half-finished-and-then-deleted drafts. Well, at least it is my 500th something, according to the WordPress.com dashboard. And surely a 500th anything is worth a small celebration, right?

## Maybe my students aren’t so bad, after all…

It has been awhile since I posted a link to Rudbeckia Hirta’s Learning Curves blog. Here are a few of her students’ recent bloopers:

# How to Read a Fraction

Fraction notation and operations may be the most abstract math monsters our students meet until they get to algebra. Before we can explain those frustrating fractions, we teachers need to go back to the basics for ourselves. First, let’s get rid of two common misconceptions:

• A fraction is not two numbers.
Every fraction is a single number. A fraction can be added to other numbers (or subtracted, multiplied, etc.), and it has to obey the Distributive Law and all the other standard rules for numbers. It takes two digits (plus a bar) to write a fraction, just as it takes two digits to write the number 18 — but, like 18, the fraction is a single number that names a certain amount of whatever we are counting or measuring.
• A fraction is not something to do.
A fraction is a number, not a recipe for action. The fraction 3/4 does not mean, “Cut your pizza into 4 pieces, and then keep 3 of them.” The fraction 3/4 simply names a certain amount of stuff, more than a half but not as much as a whole thing. When our students are learning fractions, we do cut up models to help them understand, but the fractions themselves are simply numbers.

# Quiz: Those Frustrating Fractions

[Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom.]

Fractions confuse almost everybody. In fact, fractions probably cause more math phobia among children (and their parents) than any other topic before algebra. Middle school textbooks devote a tremendous number of pages to teaching fractions, and still many students find fractions impossible to understand. Standardized tests are stacked with fraction questions.

Fractions are a filter, separating the math haves from the luckless have nots. One major source of difficulty with fractions is that the rules do not seem to make sense. Can you explain these to your children?

## Question #1

If you need a common denominator to add or subtract fractions…

• Why don’t you need a common denominator when you multiply?

[Photo by Betsssssy.]

Do you ever take your kids’ math tests? It helps me remember what it is like to be a student. I push myself to work quickly, trying to finish in about 1/3 the allotted time, to mimic the pressure students feel. And whenever I do this, I find myself prone to the same stupid mistakes that students make.

Even teachers are human.

In this case, it was a multi-step word problem, a barrage of information to stumble through. In the middle of it all sat this statement:

…and there were 3/4 as many dragons as gryphons…

My eyes saw the words, but my mind heard it this way:

…and 3/4 of them were dragons…

What do you think — did I get the answer right? Of course not! Every little word in a math problem is important, and misreading even the smallest word can lead a student astray. My mental glitch encompassed several words, and my final tally of mythological creatures was correspondingly screwy.

But here is the more important question: Can you explain the difference between these two statements?

# Trouble with Percents

Can your students solve this problem?

There are 20% more girls than boys in the senior class.
What percent of the seniors are girls?

This is from a discussion of the semantics of percent problems and why students have trouble with them, going on over at MathNotations. (Follow-up post here.) Our pre-algebra class just finished a chapter on percents, so I thought Chickenfoot might have a chance at this one. Nope! He leapt without thought to the conclusion that 60% of the class must be girls. After I explained the significance of the word “than”, he solved the follow-up problem just fine.

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# Secret Message

My algebra students could stand to hear this, too:

(2)(-4x2)n is not equal to (-8 )nx2n.

AAAAAARRRRGGGHH!!!!

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# Improper Fractions: A Mathematical Trauma

Feature photo (above) by Jimmie via flickr. Photo (right) by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr.

Nearing the end of Miquon Blue today, my youngest daughter encountered fractions greater than one. She collapsed on the floor of my bedroom in tears.

The worksheet started innocently enough:

$\frac{1}{2} \times 8=\left[ \quad \right]$

# Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers. People assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement. The conclusion simply isn’t valid.

# Mathematics and Imagination

Comments by W. W. Sawyer, in his wonderful, little book, Mathematician’s Delight:

Earlier we considered the argument, ‘Twice two must be four, because we cannot imagine it otherwise.’ This argument brings out clearly the connexion between reason and imagination: reason is in fact neither more nor less than an experiment carried out in the imagination.

# Order of Operations

[Rescued from my old blog.]

Marjorie in AZ asked a terrific question on the (now defunct) AHFH Math forum:

“…I have always been taught that the order of operations (Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction) means that you work a problem in that order. All parenthesis first, then all exponents, then all multiplication from left to right, then all division from left to right, etc. …”

Many people are confused with order of operations, and it is often poorly taught. I’m afraid that Marjorie has fallen victim to a poor teacher — or at least, to a teacher who didn’t fully understand math. Rather than thinking of a strict “PEMDAS” progression, think of a series of stair steps, with the inverse operations being on the same level.

# Fraction Division — A Poem

[Rescued from my old blog.]

Division of fractions is surely one of the most difficult topic in elementary arithmetic. Very few students (or teachers) actually understand how and why it works. Most of us get by with memorized rules, such as:

Ours is not to reason why;
just invert and multiply!