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10 Oct 2005 - 22:15

Ron Aharoni on the 5th operation of arithmetic

Carolyn has kindly left my two favorite passages in Ron Aharoni's What I Learned in Elementary School for me to blooki.

Here's the first:

What Arithmetic Should Be Covered in Elementary School?

The embarrassingly simple answer is: the four basic operations—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Yet, this seemingly simple answer is deceptive in two ways. One is that there are actually five operations. In addition to the four classical operations, there is a fifth one that is even more fundamental and important. That is, forming a unit, taking a part of the world and declaring it to be the “whole.” This operation is at the base of much of the mathematics of elementary school. First of all, in counting, when you have another such unit you say you have “two,” and so on. The operation of multiplication is based on taking a set, declaring that this is the unit, and repeating it. The concept of a fraction starts from having a whole, from which parts are taken. The decimal system is based on gathering tens of objects into one unit called a “10,” then recursively repeating it.

The forming of a unit, and the assigning of a name to it, is something that has to be learned and stressed explicitly. I met children who, in fifth grade, knew how to find a quarter of a class of 20, but had difficulty understanding how to find “three-quarters” of the class, having missed the stage of the corresponding process of repeating a unit in multiplication.

I've thought about this observation every day since reading Aharoni's article. I probably can't explain why. At least, I can't at the moment. (Good thing I'm not taking the Regents, I guess.)

But it reminded me of a post Carolyn wrote early on:

Catherine mentioned that she is a fan of tile fraction manipulatives over the more usual 'pie' manipulatives:

She said that her daughter didn't get anywhere using the more-common circular, 'pie chart' fraction manipulatives; she needed to see rectangular fractions. I have no idea why this would be, but it 'felt' right to me, so I searched for rectangular manipulatives and found these.

I prefer tile manipulatives too, for what I think are solid pedagogical reasons, and here is why: if you want to talk about improper fractions -- fractions greater than one -- with your kid, then the pie-shaped manipulatives add potential for confusion because you can't make a single connected object that represents a quantity greater than one. If you want to represent, for example, 3/2 with pie manipulatives, then you'll have one whole circle and a half circle. You can tell a kid that that represents a single object, the quantity 3/2, all you like; but to him it will look like two objects. Fractions are confusing enough without that.

Conversely, you can make a single line of tiles that is as long as you like.

So unless your child is really off and running with the pie manipulatives, I'd recommend the tile manipulatives.

These are the fraction tiles I like:


You can order extra tiles, too, which I have done. I've used these over and over again, with Christopher, and with at least two of his friends.

Worth their weight in gold.

Aharoni article, part 1
Aharoni article, part 2: America's 'new math' goes to Israel
Aharoni on the fifth operation of arithmetic
Ron Aharoni on teaching fractions & forming units
What I Learned In Elementary School by Ron Aharoni (AMERICAN EDUCATOR)

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