Thursday, January 31, 2008

Math in the media - Killing Fractions?!?

We all know making a seemingly outrageous statement to gather attention, and then expounding on your point once the audience is yours, is a sure-fire way to start a conversation. I am not sure it is always the best way to bring the topic to the floor, however.

Dennis DeTurk, a professor in the Mathematics Department at the University of Pennsylvania, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there, and Evan C Thompson Endowed Term Professorship for Excellence in Teaching, advocates the abolishment of fractions as a mathematical tool, and to simply use decimal representations of real numbers (there.... how's that for an outrageous statement to start the conversation?).

The USA Today article by Maureen Milford is here:

Needless to say, he has attracted attention, some quite critical.

Well, to be fair, he doesn't really hate fractions at all, and isn't leading the charge to erase their existence. I will let you read the short USA Today article fully, but all he really seems to be saying is that it would be better to teach kids decimals when it is time for them to learn about parts of numbers and their arithmetic. Then later, when they are a bit more mature mathematically, teachers can introduce the ratio format of a fraction. True or not, his quote in the article is well-reasoned, IMHO:

"Mathematicians are always questioning the axioms. Everybody knows that questioning those often results in the most substantial gains in terms of progress."

I not sure whether it would matter, personally. I have kids that recently went through the first fraction stage in school. It can be troublesome, but I have always found that complicated abstract mathematical structures are not a hindrance to kids generally. They tend to eventually master almost anything you throw at them. So what if it takes a little while. I always viewed it a a "good wiring" technique for learning future, even more complicated abstract structures.


Lee said...

This is interesting... It seems that fractional representations of a number are more intuitive than decimal representations when people first learn about the concept.

The line about possibly learning fractions after calc seems like an exaggeration; I hope that Prof. DeTurck wasn't serious about it.

Besides, what do you get when you write 0.25/0.50?
A fraction! :) (Which happens to equal 0.5 also... but that's besides the point)

Richard Brown said...

I am still not convinced that that is true.... that fractions are either more or less intuitive than decimal representations.

To be honest, I have never really seen this as a problem either with my own kids, with those in the neighborhood I spent time doing math with, or with parents of kids that I have had mathematics-education discussions with.

To me, a much bigger problem is the strong push in middle school toward more and more advanced mathematics at earlier and earlier stages. Not that kids cannot handle it. I am more concerned that the educators are not adequately prepared to educate it properly (but like you said in this discussion; that is besides the point).