Navigating Collectivity: Grade 9 Fractions

Today an amazing thing happened; students put aside the endemic disdain for rational numbers and had a conversation. I’d go further, they weren’t discussing their views on fractions, they were collectively conjecturing–the moves of the room enacted each other. I don’t think that a written document can capture the movement of the body of learners, but I have to try something. Think of it as less of a remembering and more of a re-membering, a reconstruction of a living learning event from the past.

My intern and I have worked at fostering a spirit of collectivity in our grade nine classrooms. This begins with a starter problem where they are asked to respond and fully explain their thinking in whichever modality they are most comfortable with. After a partner discussion, the teacher anticipates, orders, and debriefs different ideas that appeared. Today, my intern gave a starter on fractions as an introduction to a review day. The thinking was mind blowing. The purpose of this post is hence two-fold: 1) try to capture the spirit of collectivity and 2) an open job application to school divisions looking for a fantastic teacher-to-be.
The *question was as follows:
Place four different digits (2-9) and one operation ( +, -, *, / ) in the boxes to create an expression with the largest result possible. Explain your thinking.
There were three amazing pieces of thinking that came from the collective that would not have occurred if their thinking wouldn’t have met perturbations.
1)   She began by collecting answers from the class and placing them on the board. They stood as artefacts of intelligence, but needed to be investigated. As she asked probing questions, the following conversation occurred (paraphrased, of course).
Teacher: How do you know this is the largest?
Student 1: Because I made the bottoms as small as I could.
Student 2: Denominators.
Teacher: Right, denominators. So you chose 2 and 3?
Student 1: Yes, because they were the smallest, the best.
Student 2: Because you said we couldn’t use 1.
Student 1: We would have used 1, because it is the best.
Teacher: 1 is the best denominator?
Student 3: Yes, well no, zero would be the best. It is as small as possible.
Many Classmates: No! Can’t divide by zero! Zero doesn’t work! etc.
Student 3: I  know you can’t, but if you could, it would make the largest number.
The interesting (and very mathematical) idea of “best” comes out of the students’ method of making a claim and supporting further claims based on their classmates. Student 3 is following a pattern established by the other two. When he takes it past the area where they were comfortable, the collective self-corrected. I’m not sure it gets to this moment with teacher questioning; the teacher constantly deflects back to the collective.
2)    Quickly after this discussion on division by zero subsided, another student made a conjecture and the collective employed rules to decide whether the move was mathematically legal.
Student 1: We could make the fraction bigger by adding a number.
Teacher: How do you mean?
Student 1: Like if we took a digit, 4, and put it out in front of the fraction. (motioning to create a mixed number)
Student 2: But that wasn’t the question.
Student 1: I know, but it would always make it bigger.
Teacher: Creating a mixed fraction would always make it bigger?
Student 2: Yes, they are wholes.
Student 3: But that can’t work.
Student 1: Why?
Student 3: Because you can’t add a whole to an improper fraction? It already has wholes?
Student 1: But this would just add wholes?
Teacher: Adding wholes makes it bigger?
Here, we see the conceptual understanding of fractions (wholes make things bigger) and legalistic understanding of mathematics (can’t be improper and mixed) at war. The students do not shy away from making a suggestion even though they are aware that the question forbade it. They are operating on proscriptive barriers and the question doesn’t restrict their function. Notice how little the teacher says; the students form conclusions with each other.
3)   At the tail end of the discussion, my intern asked if anyone used addition. One student raised their hand and offered their solution. In a familiar line of questioning, she tried to explain why 2 and 3 would be the ideal denominators.
Student 1: Because they are the smallest.
Student 2: But, wait, they don’t create the smallest number.
Student 1: Fewer pieces, larger.
Teacher: What do you mean?
Student 2: 2 and 3 make 6, but 2 and 4 make 4.
Teacher: When we add?
Student 2: Yes. Common denominator.
This initially blew my mind. What an astute comment to make. The chosen numbers would not create the smallest common denominator, so would they still create the largest fraction? Student 2 did not entertain an additive strategy until Student 1 suggested it; it was her explanation that spurred Student 2 to wonder about the effect of common factors in creating the largest possible fractions. While it may seem like the collectivity is one-sided, the thinking formed through communal action recursively challenges the entire class.
What stands out to me is three things:
1)  A simple question that allows for student action is the first step toward collectivity.
2)  The depth of thought the students achieved.
3)  The collective interplay of their thoughts when given the arena to collide.
I hear you:
“But I don’t have time”
“My students are too weak”
In the end, it took the provision of a space, curation of conjectures, and presentation of a perturbation to open up collective space.
NatBanting

* Source of Problem: http://reasonandwonder.com/two-fractions/

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