A note from the submitter:

Along the lines of one I sent you awhile back. This is one of my best students, and several other students gave answers with similar misconceptions. I pretty much ignored it last time it came up, thinking that it was an anomaly, but I think it’s a significant hole in my students’ understanding. Students were using calculators today.

What’s going on here in the student work? What’s the connection to the earlier post?

A reflection from the submitter:

I think this 10th grader is saying .174>.34>.5.  I wonder what she would have concluded if she’d followed the directions and rounded to 3 decimal places? Many kids were tripped up by the .5, maybe she’d say they were increasing except the .5?

Do you agree with the submitter’s assessment? How do you help a student learning trigonometry nail this down?

I think it’s important to say something more subtle than “this kid doesn’t understand decimals.” One thing that this site has documented is that kids can understand something at 1:00 and then do something entirely different at 1:01. It’s best to see this not as a failure of decimal knowledge, but maybe a failure to use decimal knowledge in this situation. (Some people would say this kid’s knowledge of decimals in a certain context failed to transfer to this problem.) The difference is in how we respond. This kid probably doesn’t need the “basics” of decimals. We just need to make a connection to somewhere where she knows about decimals, I’m speculating.

Write down 0.1, and add a tenth to it. Write that number down. Then add 0.2 to 0.1. Write that down. Then add one to 0.1.

In case it’s hard to see, in response to “What’s one tenth added to 0.1?” these students responded

• 1.1, then crossed out with a “2” written over it
• 0.01
• 0.11

• 0.2
• 0.2
• 1 0.1 (which looks like a mixed decimal to me which is pretty cool)

I’m trying to think through what class looks like tomorrow. It seems that I’ve got kids who certainly need time to work with 0.1, 3/10, 0.4 and other tenthy ideas. I also have students who don’t really have much of a grasp on how to use the hundredths place.

I’m going to take a page out of “Extending Children’s Mathematics” and give kids a version of this problem tomorrow:

Francine is making chili. She adds .1 grams of her secret ingredient to each liter of chili that she makes. If she has 5 grams of her secret ingredient, how many liters of chili can she make?

But what numbers would be most helpful to use in this problem? I’m struggling with that question right now. It seems like anything involving 0.1 or any tenths would be good, I guess. I think it’s probably most important for these students to relate decimals to whole numbers.

…and then the more practical concerns arise. What do I do for the quick finishers? They’ve done a lot of problems like this — will this problem feel tedious to them? Should I retrench with some of the part/whole stuff that we worked on yesterday? Maybe spend the first half of class solving chili problems and plan for a discussion, and then try this shading in activity again during the second half? Ooh, we could structure the second half of class around comparing 0.25 and 0.3, like my textbook says, or maybe the kids won’t be ready to discuss decimals that go into the hundredths…

She chose to shade in 5/100 and 49/1000.

The question for me is whether I try to pin this down in terms of shading in/part whole representations, or try to embed these decimals in a grouping word problem. I think I’m going to go for a bit of a combo approach.

I put “0.1” on the board and asked students what they’d call this. A kid said “one tenth,” but that quickly became controversial.

Question: how do you think these kids are seeing 0.1?

This student — let’s call her Alice — is in 4th Grade. She did some work with fractions in 3rd Grade, but clearly isn’t comfortable with them.

I went over to Alice and noticed that she wrote “0.5” for point A. I asked her to read that number, and she said “a half.” Then I drew a half-filled circle and I asked Alice to tell me what fraction of the circle was filled in. She said “a half.”

Me: Can you write “a half” as a fraction?

Alice: Why do you have to? This way is so much easier.

[I show her how I write a half.]

Alice: Oh, a one and a two.

[I draw two more circles, one with a quarter filled in, the other with three quarters filled in.]

Me: What part of the circle is filled in in these two circles?

Alice: A quarter. Three quarters.

Me: How would you write those numbers down.

Alice: Umm…so this would be one-four?

Me: Yes, though I’d read this as one-fourth.

Alice: And this would be one-three.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways. First, because you can really see in Alice’s work the difference between written and spoken language. Alice can tell you what a half is. She can even tell you how much is shaded in on the other circles, but she can’t write it. Attention needs to be given to both verbal and written language, and we teachers tend to focus on our students written work.

Also, “one-four” and “one-three”? That’s so interesting. Alice sees “three” as the most important part of “three quarters,” and tentatively thinks that fractions are just always “one-something.” That’s a pretty strong tell.

The other remarkable thing is how strongly Alice prefers decimal representations to fractions. Alice showed this preference consistently in her problem solving.

The kindly Professor Danielson argues that, in a curriculum, fractions ought to precede decimals. But it’s also true that decimals are addictive. In my high school classes, kids use their calculators to transform fractions to decimals as a defensive measure. You know the easiest way to help (most) kids solve equations with fractions? Point out that they can convert those fractions to decimals.

Decimals are absolutely enticing to people, even to this kid who is just getting started in this whole mess.

Lots of good stuff going on here. But I don’t think I entirely understand where 1/8 came from, though I get how that gets turned into 5.8.

[I never know whether to include all the mistakes from a class set or just a few. I feel as if it’s helpful to include more mistakes, but sometimes overwhelming. My solution today is to post one especially cool mistake largely, and the others smallerly. Let me know whether that works.]

What strikes me about this piece of student work is how clean and predictable their mistake is.

Is this sort of mistake the rule or the exception? Does a mistake like this reflect the fact that many/most student errors are due to coherent mental models, or is it the rarer exception in a world dominated by stormy minds that fling ideas at math less predictably?

Thanks again to Dionn!