Tools for a fraction renaissance

Many a parent has told me that if only they’d had a set of fraction tiles when they were young, math would have gone very differently for them. That may even be understating things.  It’s hard to imagine a handful of plastic pieces could significantly change the course of a life, but then again, things are in a bit of a state, math-wise.

If math can go differently from how it often goes (ie Not Well), the course of a person’s whole life, not just math success, can be altered substantially.  This is not to say that you can’t have a perfectly good life if math doesn’t go well for you (nor that fraction tiles are necessary).  It’s just that math is held as such a staunch indicator of intelligence and promise that if you get the impression that you’re not one of the ones who’s good at it, it’s likely to get in your way to some degree. And that degree is not usually small.

All of this is to say that in my opinion there’s no purchase (including fancy curriculum, fancy enrollment, fancy tutoring) that is likely to make quite the difference that a set of fraction tiles can make.  Fractions are often the turning point for young learners of math; all the adding and subtracting of whole numbers made sense, came easily, and then suddenly those whole numbers were stacked on top of each other, separated by little platforms, and they got new names.  Maybe, kids think, I’m not so good at math after all.  The fraction tiles can help.

And you don’t even really need to do much with them.  The tiles pictured above are available with magnets (or can be easily equipped with magnets), so they can be… stored… on the refrigerator, just like those trusty Fisher-Price alphabets of yore.  Anyone who goes near the refrigerator sees them, sees that the fourths are twice as big as the eighths, that four twelfths fit in a third, sees how they all relate to the whole.  And then they’re there for reference too.  If you’re baking and you want to halve a recipe you can ask someone to check the fridge to see how much half a fourth is, or just go over and do it yourself (out loud: “Let’s see.  A fourth is when it’s broken into four pieces.  If the fourth got broken in half again, it’d be the same as… (sift around until you find the right-sized piece)  the eighth.  So I need an eighth of a cup.”

There are languages, apparently, in which fractions have names that make sense and reflect their conceptual basis (I’m told that in Chinese, 3/5 is “out of five parts, three”).  In English, not so much.  Without the linguistic support in place, the least we can do is let kids learn the concept first, let them see the fracturing and make sense of the notation with their eyes and hands before we expect them to make sense of it abstractly.

If you can get your hands on a set of tiles and get them up on the fridge when your children are still toddlers, great.  They’ll get familiar with them the way kids get familiar with anything they see a lot from the time they’re very young – without even trying.  But no matter how old your kids are, no matter how old you are, it’s not too late to let the tiles make a difference!  And you may even find that your teenager, or your neighbor, or your high-achieving college graduate daughter will walk by one day, wonder why you now have fractions on the fridge, and then suddenly exclaim “Oh!  NOW I get it!”

Because most of us, still, don’t. It’s not just you.