Preventing “Fraction Phobia”

A recent blog post in edweek discussing “fraction phobia” got us thinking about some of the things that we see regularly when working with many kids in math.  For all the back and forth that the implementation of the common core standards has generated about “how” math ought to be taught, one thing that we see remains clear (and corroborates the edweek blog): learning to manipulate fractions well plays a significant role in a student’s confidence in math and can have a lasting impact on his or her self-perception as math capable.

We’ve long held the position that for students without learning differences, one thing that we believe can short-circuit fraction mastery is either an over reliance on, or the premature use of, calculators.  It’s easy to see how this occurs.  Since the bulk of primary and secondary school math problems have correct answers, the dominant goal of a student is to “get them right.”  While no one would argue that this goal is unimportant, a problem arises when this goal shifts from dominant to exclusive.

In a rush to “get things right,” students can easily be led to confuse correctness with true understanding.  Since hitting the buttons on a calculator can make short work of fraction intensive problems, leading to correct answers while still masking a student’s lack of real understanding, this confusion can remain hidden until the student transitions into more abstract math classes where calculators may not be as useful for some elementary tasks.

We’ve seen students that have thought of themselves as “good” math students suddenly find that “what worked before” is insufficient, and change their self-perception from capable to “not a math person” (a characterization with which we take extreme issue, but is perhaps better left as a subject of a later blog post) in the span of a semester.


How Can Parents Minimize Fraction Phobia?

  • Ask your child’s teacher how your child is being taught fractions so that you are aware of what your child should understand.
  • Encourage your child to pay attention to more than just “the bottom line” (and continue to work some problems “by hand”) and have him or her explain to you how the solution to some fraction problems were obtained.

are two goals that parents should employ as a means of ensuring that a child’s self-perception as a “good” math student is based solid understanding.  That will lead to an improved ability to generalize what he or she is learning when it comes time to apply concepts to more abstract math problems.

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