The photo below is courtesy of Robert Yu, Head of Lego Education China, as shared by Jonathan Rochelle, Director for Project Management at Google.
The use of Legos shown here is a classic (and wicked clever) example of manipulatives.
Before writing the actual fractions students can use drawings as shown below. The sequence of manipulatives, drawings then the actual “mathy” stuff constitutes a Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA) model. Concrete = manipulative, Representational = picture, abstract = symbolic or the “mathy” stuff.
We explain steps in great detail to students but often omit the underlying concept. The topic of adding or subtracting fractions with unlike denominators is an example of this.
The example above right is a short cut for what is shown above left. These short cuts, which math teachers love to use, add to the student’s confusion because these rules require the student to use rote memorization which does is not readily retained in the brain.
I suggest using what I call a meaning making approach. I present the student 2 slices of pizza (images courtesy of Pizza Fractions Game) and explain the following setting. “You and I both paid for pizza and this (below) is what we have left. You can have the pizza slice on the left and I will have the pizza slice on the right. Is that OK?” The student intuitively understands that it is not because the slices are different sizes. I then explain that when we add fractions we are adding pizza slices so the slices need to be the same.
I then cut the half slice into fourths and explain that all the slices are the same size so we can now add them. Then the multiplying the top and bottom by 2 makes more sense.
Fractions is one of the most challenging topics in math. Here’s an approach to help introduce fractions.
I show the photo above, explain to a student that he and I both paid for the pizza. We are going to finish eating the pizza and I get the slice on the left. I ask “is this fair?” This leads into a discussion about the size of the slices and what 1/2 and 1/4 mean. The pizza on the left was originally cut into 2 slices so the SIZE of the slices is halves. The SIZE of the slices in the one on the right is fourths. I have 1 slice left and it is a half so my pizza is 1 half or 1/2. He has 1 slice left and it is a fourth so his pizza is 1/4. The bottom number is the size and the top number is the # of slices.
We cannot count the number of slices because they are not the same size. So we need to change my pizza. So I slice my pizza and now I have 2 slices and they are cut into fourths. So now I have 2/4. Note: I don’t show the actual multiplication to show how I got the 2 and 4. I am sticking with the visual approach to develop meaning before showing the “mathy” approach.
Now that I have slices that are all the same size, I can now count the # of slices. “1, 2, 3…3 slices and they are cut in fourths.”