Are Fractions the New Gatekeeper to higher levels of Mathematics?

Traditionally the study of fractions begins in 4th or 5th grade and typically students are taught how to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions.  Children spend a great deal of time applying a complex set of rules and trying to master when to apply which rule.  Unfortunately, the application of rote procedures without conceptual understanding often leads to misuse of procedures, miscalculations and frustration. In these cases, understanding the magnitude of the numbers and developing number sense with respect to fractional relationships often gets lost or overlooked.  At Stuart Hall teachers are aware that developing number sense and conceptual understanding are prerequisites to successful problem solving in mathematics. Therefore, students at SHB begin their study of fractions using concrete materials – real food is often used in an introductory lesson sparking interest and creating a memorable experience. Teachers focus on comparing, ordering and placing fractions on number lines to develop a deep conceptual understanding.  Landmark numbers such as ¼, ½, and ¾ are used as benchmarks for students to assist with comparisons.  Hands on experiences with paper cutting, manipulatives, and games are used to provide students with a strong foundation in this important concept.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled New Approaches to Teaching Fractions cited research indicating that a child’s knowledge of fractions in 5th grade often predicts performance in high school math classes.  Mastery of this topic has long been known as a “crucial stepping stone” for success in middle school, but the article revealed that a lack of understanding with this concept often leads to difficulties in algebra, geometry, statistics, physics and chemistry. The significance of developing competency with fractions in these STEM subjects has led to government funding to find more effective ways to teach this topic. The WSJ article focused on the “new teaching methods” implemented to ensure student success with fractions. Fortunately for the boys at SHB, the “new approaches” that are yielding success, use tools such as number lines, paper models, and games – the strategies already firmly in place at Stuart Hall.  The alarming national test data (cited in the WSJ article) showing that nearly half of eighth graders aren’t able to put three fractions in size order is not a problem at SHB where boys routinely deal with this concept.  The national focus in math education to develop conceptually strong students with keen number sense and effective problem solving skills is the cornerstone of the math program at SHB.  It is reassuring to know that we are using innovative and effective approaches to teaching and learning mathematics.

Contribution by Mary Ann Warrington, SHB Math Specialist


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