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Suggestions for good mathematics lessons

John Gough


Source: Gough, J (n.d.), ‘Suggestions for good mathematics lessons’, Deakin University.

Suggestions For Good Mathematics Lessons John Gough— Lecturer in Education — Deakin University

Katch on to Kilometres Kilometres are so big they are hard to comprehend. "Hands-on and heads-down" experience is hard to provide. A kilometre is big. Manageable concrete experience is not easy to provide. You can't stretch out and touch one. Driving at highway speed for a kilometre tends to give a shortened sense of distance because of the blurring effect of speed, and the fact that when we've reached the end we can't easily turn back and see the beginning. Running or walking laps around an oval doesn't give any feeling for the distance from start to finish. But what about "feet-on and eyes-up"? Organise a Kilometre Excursion.

Use a good street directory to find a suitable nearby kilometre of road. It should be straight and reasonably flat. Arrange to take the class on a walking excursion. There are several

different activities you can do. Choose a starting point, preferably one that is reasonably easy to see, like an intersection, a church, a shop or tower, a large tree or street sign.

- Ask children to look along the road and pick out some identifiable feature that they think is a kilometre away. Write down their visual estimates.

- Leave a large flag or banner at the starting point (if there is no clearly identifiable feature at that point), and start walking. Children may count their paces, or time their walking, or just guess. Let children stop where they think a kilometre ends. Note their physical estimates.

- You can have some children using trundle wheels. But tell them to keep walking until everyone else has decided to drop out, so that other children will not take their cue from the wheelers who should know exactly where the kilometre ends.

- Now you can rally all the children to the correct end of the kilometre. Look back to the starting point. Notice how small a person, or a car, or a tree looks at that distance. Look at the half-kilometre point. Observe the identifiable features of the

- Walk back. Count your paces. Once you have returned to the starting point, look back at the end of the kilometre. Again, observe the apparent size of familiar objects a

kilometre away

Look at the half-kilometre point.

The same kind of activity can be done with half kilometres, with 100 200, 300 and 400 metres. If there is no suitable nearby place, you could combine this activity, which is free, with a more expensive bus excursion. Use a map or street directory to identify a suitable kilometre, and interrupt the bus journey for a short kilometre walk and a bit of a look.

When you are on a bus excursion, if you can find out the bus route in advance, you can use a street directory or map to identify several kilometres. Explain what you will be doing to the children. Then as you pass the starting point of one kilometre, tell the children, "It starts here", and have them put their hand up when they think the bus has gone a kilometre. Even if this can't be planned in advance, you may be able to have a child watching the bus's odometer and use that to say when a kilometre starts and when it stops.

(This is similar to the time-estimation task where children have a large second sweep-hand analog clock visible at the front of the room. They close their eyes, and at a signal, attempt to estimate the duration (in silence) of a minute. As individual children think a minute has elapsed they silently open their eyes and raise one hand, and look at the sweeping second hand to see how accurate their "minute" actually was.)

Suggestions for Good Lessons

Estimating large distances can easily improve with practice. Soldiers and boy scouts learn to do it. Years ago one of my colleagues saw a teacher in a country school do something very similar. A boy asked the teacher, "How big is a kilometre?" and the teacher told the boy, "Can you see Mr Jones' cow paddock way over there? You walk there and when you get there, wave to me." The boy did. It was a kilometre away. Clever, quick thinking, and a lesson the boy learned for life.

One helpful tip to develop the ability to estimate road distances is to get a feel for how small a standard car looks, at a distance of a kilometre. (A standing person may not be as readily visible at such a distance.) Here is another active suggestion. As you sit in a car or bus watching the metres swoop past, choose a suitable sign that announces a distance to some feature, perhaps, Gundagai Exit 500 metres. Then see if you can visually pick out a point about 100 metres ahead, then another, then another, and so on five times: Can your 100 metre estimates fit in reasonably accurately to the 500 metre distance to the turn off? Practice makes better.

Kilometres are quantities we can really feel, even though they are big. Kilolitres are not too hard either — we can swim in them, or walk around them. But kilokilograms, that is, tonnes, are not so easy to be experienced hands-on. We might know how much mass a car or a truck or an elephant has, but what does a tonne feel like? Hmmm. How many "average" children does it take to make a tonne? How do tonnes connect with tare weight and the number of passengers a bus can carry?

Finally, here are some other measurement challenges with length, volume and area.

• Imagine you have a litre of centicubes (Dienes' MAB mini blocks), packed correctly. Imagine them, all neatly fitted together in a container the size of a one litre milk carton. Now: imagine they are placed, side by side, one at a time, in a line. How far will the line made with a litre of centicubes reach? Write your estimate.

• Next: imagine the litre's worth of centicubes are placed on a flat surface, fitting together to make a kind of rectangular mat which has no gaps or holes between centicubes. How much surface is covered by the litre of centicubes? Write an estimate.

• Now, imagine you have a cubic metre. (Build a cubic metre, or a frame outline, if you have never seen one.) Imagine it is filled exactly with centicubes, then imagine these centicubes placed in a line, end to end. How far will the line of a cubic metre of centicubes reach? Write your estimate. What amount of surface is covered by the cubic metre of centicubes?

• Finally, imagine you have a million centicubes. Could you fit them in the boot of your car? Joined together in a line, how far would they reach? If you used them to "tile" a bathroom floor, how big would the bathroom floor be?

• The last task is to explain and calculate exact answers.

Reference: Charles Lovitt and Doug Clarke Mathematics Curriculum and Teaching Program [MCTP] Activity Bank Volume 2 (Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, 1988 p 432) "There and back" provides brief suggestions for map use, pacing and trundle wheel estimation and measurement.

Learning Mathematics From a Language-Psycholinguistic Approach When children finish reading a piece of prose, teachers and adults usually ask the children to say what they have been reading. Sometimes the teachers probe comprehension a little further by asking about certain words, or events, or about why things happened. This emphasis on active comprehension can be generalised further, beyond just reading. At the end of a lesson, we can ask children to try to tell us what they know now or can do now that they did not know or could not do before.

When children are reading prose, teachers encourage them to be aware of three key psychological questions about the reading process:

- does this make sense?

- does it sound right?

- do those letters or words look right?

These questions help children self-correct if they make mistakes or miscues in reading, when they get "stuck" on a "hard" word, or don't understand what they are reading.

Versions of these questions can help children become more aware of their learning in other subject areas also, including mathematics.

- what do I expect?

- does that seem right?

- does that make sense?

- what is this for?

- what are we trying to find out or do?

- what does this mean?

- how do we know?

- how could I explain this to someone else?

- what else does this seem to resemble?

These questions help motivate curiosity, and responsibility by the learner for what is being learned. This responsibility is very important. The simple fact is that the whole point of education is to change a person's brain. Short of indoctrination, conditioning and other non- "educational", no one else can do another person's learning.

Mathematics and Process Writing Here are some ideas for combining the realistic approaches of process writing with problem solving and other aspects of mathematics. - Have a school mathematics newsletter, reporting research, problems, experiments and activities.

- Have children write a weekly class homework sheet. Each child must write at least one task. Children may be allowed to take these tasks from a textbook or some other source, as long as it is not a book or source being used during ordinary class-time. Encourage children to make up their own tasks. Every child is expected to attempt every task on the weekly sheet.

- Make a Class Book of Patterns: each child makes a pattern or set of patterns on one page. When reading the book, the task is: can you continue or complete this pattern?

- Children draw maps or make models of their own written stories or the stories they read.

Suggestions for Good Lessons

- Children write their own wall charts and "textbooks" to explain how to do certain bits of mathematics.

- Children write a description of what they learned or what they did in class. For example:

"Today we learned about the metre. There are 100 cm in one metre. I am 120 cm tall or 1 and a fifth metres." Etc.

- Children write real stories about shopping they have done.

Learning to Estimate Estimation, like so many other everyday skills, improves with practice. But we should be careful to make the practice as realistic and useful as possible.You could set up an Estimation Corner. Different sets of materials for estimating can be displayed at different times. For example, you could have four or five margerine tubs which are all the same size and unmarked, but containing different masses. This can be used for comparisons (which has more mass? which has less?) and ordering (putting in sequence from least mass to most) and estimating (which is 1 kilo? which is 500 g?). Once comparisons, sequences and estimates have been made, the tubs can be taken to the Measuring Corner to check the initial results.

The same can be done with unmarked containers of different shapes and sizes. Which will hold more? Which will hold less? Can you fill this particular container with a litre of sand (or rice, beans, centicubes, water, etc)?

The same can be done with lengths. Which of these sticks is 50 cm long? Which is 1m long? Why not practise the task of police description: estimated height and body weight of suspects? Use a long piece of string: estimate (and then measure, to check) one centimetre, 30 centimetres, 100 centimetres.

Some of these ideas are discussed at greater length by David Hildreth "The Use of Strategies in Estimating Measurements" Arithmetic Teacher Jan 1983 pp 50-54, and John Gipps on "Estimation" in the M.A.V. Annual Conference Book for 1982.

Art and Fractions Here are some good questions to try.

- In a room, look at one of the window panes. What fraction is it of the whole window?

- Do the diagonals of a rectangle divide the rectangle into quarters? How can you explain this? There are more ideas like this in D. Edge "Fractions and Panes" Arithmetic Teacher 34 April 1987 no. 8 pp 13 - 17

- Divide a square and color it using only 2 (or 3, 4, 5,

) colors, so that exactly half (one

third, one quarter, one fifth,

) of the square is one color. Try to see how many ways

you can do this. Avoid the obvious and artistically dull ways of doing this. By using different colors, and different ways of dividing a square, you can make a "window" of squares that will be a pleasing abstract design. There are more ideas like this in J.V. Bruni and H.J. Silverman "Using Rectangles and Squares to Develop Fraction Concepts" Arithmetic Teacher 24 Feb 1977 pp 96-102.

- What fraction of a unit square is each tangram piece? This is absurdly difficult (which is a good joke, if you know anything about Pythagoras and surds), but can be handled easily by using decimal approximations. One good way to do this is to use a wooden or plastic tangram set and find the mass of the whole set and compare this to the mass of

each piece. Alternatively you can make a tangram set on graph paper, and count squares to estimate the area of each piece compared to the whole square.

Everyday Fraction Tasks Fractions arise simply in ordinary situations. Here are some.

- Mrs Berry earns $40 each full day that she works. If she works 3 half-days, how much does she earn? If she wants to earn $100, how many days should she work?

- Mr Berry buys 4 tubs of margarine to make scones. Each tub has half a kilo of magarine. How many kilos altogether has he bought?

If he bought quarter kilos of copha for chocolate crackles, how many packets would he need to have 3 and a half kilos of copha?

- How many ways can you cut a square in half? in thirds? in quarters?

Fraction Monsters To motivate the idea of fractions that do something, invent the Half Monster. He is a friendly little thing, a bit like Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, or Mr. Greedy, except that he likes chomping into things and eating exactly half of whatever is there. Children can find things to feed the Half Monster: how much will he eat? How many ways can you cut the Half Monster's slice?

Of course, he has other monsters in his family. What do you have left if you feed something to the Half Monster, then feed what he leaves to the Quarter Monster?

How much does the Quarter Monster get?

What happens if you feed 3 apples to the Half Monster? Or two thirds of an apple?

All of this talk about Half, Quarter, and Third Monsters, and their family, provides a reason for working with objects and fractions and fraction arithmetic. It is NOT a realistic use of fractions. But if the idea appeals to children, their enjoyment will be sufficient reason to do the work. Even fantasy can make sense.

Calculator Approximations of Fractions Which is bigger, four fifths or three fourths?

Traditionally this would be handled by

do you know how?

But in this calculator age, one simple way is to take a calculator and see what 4 divided by 5 is, and compare this, digit by digit, with the result of 3 divided by 4. Yes, this glosses over the fact that a fraction is equivalent to a division. But that is worth talking about, anyway. And this calculator conversion of fraction, through division, into decimal or decimal approximation makes it very easy to see that 18 boys in a class of 32 children is more boys, proportionally, than 17 boys in a class of 31.

Rulers Equal Number Lines, Add Up to Good Number Sense One available teaching aide that is frequently overlooked is a simple centimetre ruler. The standard 30 cm ruler allows children to count forwards and backwards. They can skip

Suggestions for Good Lessons

count 2's, 3's, 4's, 5's, and so on, counting forwards or backwards. They can use Cuisenaire blocks to make skip counting models for sharing or for working out "lots of".

Children do not have to know what a centimetre is to be able to use the ruler. It is enough to be able to read the numbers and figure out the steps.

By putting two rulers together, side by side, if the scales are appropriately placed, children can place one number on one scale, then put the start (the zero) of the other ruler against the first ruler's number, and then read off addition facts. That is, the two rulers can be used as a simple addition slide rule.

The same kind of thing can be done in reverse to work out subtractions.

Metre rulers marked in centimetres provide excellent models of 100's, and are a good alternative to base-10 bead frames and MAB Base 10 blocks. Metre rulers can also be used as supporting model for working with cents and dollars.

Mucking About With Mass Find the mass of a ball of plasticene or modelling clay or playdough. Make a model, such as a hollow box or house, or a long snake or a large sheet or plate, or a set of clay model people or animals. Find the mass of the model. Then make the model back into a ball and find the mass for the third time. Did you lose any? Gain any?

Class Comparisons Class surveys are a good way to motivate work on mass, length, order, classification, counting, graphing, and so on. Here are some possible areas to survey. Even beginners can

understand simple graphs of surveys, and older children can begin learning how to build and use databases.

- Arrange the class in order of increasing mass. This can be done by estimation, by pair comparisons on a see saw, and by direct measurement.

- Arrange the class by order of

- height, arm span, handspan, finger length, growth in half a year

- shoe size, head size, mass

- length of surname

- age (years, months, days, minutes?)

- Classify the class by

- first (last) letter of firstname (or surname)

- number of brothers and sisters, number of pets, number of uncles and aunts

- position in family

- hair color, eye color, languages spoken at home

- birth month, day of the month when born, birth day-of-the-week

- Make a Class Book of Records

- show results of class surveys as graphs (several kinds are possible - pictograms, bar graphs, scattergrams, and so on)

- show results of claa surveys as fractions in pie charts, and fraction bars.

Looking into Length Remember that "measuring" is related to but essentially different from "comparing". Measuring is a kind of counting. You can start by building toy roads, fences and towers with building blocks. Estimate, then count to check: how many blocks reach from here to there in the road; how many pieces go around the toy paddock; how many blocks high can you build before the tower falls?

Make playground pictures of dinosaurs, whales, elephants, or aeroplanes, using the correct sizes. Make playground scale diagrams of the diameters and solar distances of the planets. Given dimensions of well-known objects (e.g. from aircraft recognition books, dimensions of internationally famous buildings, Guinness Book of Records, etc), make scale silhouette cardboard outline models.

Measure right and left hands and compare "handedness". Survey the class, and graph results. Compare right handed people's hand-differences with left-handed people's hand- differences.

Measure your bedroom. Use your measurements to make an accurate scale plan (e.g. 5 cm to 1 m). Make a class survey of plans: average size of windows, average floor space, average storage space (volume, shelf length).

What is the "best" length of walking (running) pace for sustained speed? Make a class survey and graph the results: height / pace; speed / pace.

Look at a photo of a man on stilts, people on a boat, people boarding a plane, people standing outside their house: estimate, approximate, and measure to check the dimensions of the objects in the photos.

Compare the different body-sizes of a child and an adult. Do this for a family, and plot body-proportions against age.

Area Tasks Take a large sheet of paper. Fold it lengthwise in half, and cut. Fold it lengthwise again and cut, and so on. Calculate length divided by width. Calculate or find the area of each successive part.

Do the same for folding width-wise, successively.

Do the same for folding and cutting alternately lengthwise and then widthwise.

What happens when the piece you start with is A4?

What proportion of the first 10 pages of a daily newspaper is occupied by text, pictures, advertisements? How does this compare with a magazine? How does this differ for different newspapers or magazines? Why?!

Peach Mathematics Take different brands of peaches in different sizes of containers (or use some other palateable product which is available in different brands and sizes of containers).

Suggestions for Good Lessons


- the amount of liquid in the tin

- the mass of the fruit

Calculate the cost of fruit per 100 g Compare nutritional information and ingredients listed on the labels Taste the differences.

This can be adapted to any market survey, or budget-shopping exercise.

Time Tasks What portion of an hour program on TV or radio is occupied by advertisements, credits, titles, station promotions, etc.?

What is the average length of a TV "shot", where the same camera view is maintained without cutting to another view? How does this vary for different programs?

For children who cannot read a clock with hands, offer a Smartie or other small bribe if the child comes to you at a specified time: at the start of each day you can give a different time, such as "ten past 11", or "twenty to twelve". If this gets too easy, or you suspect the child is being helped by someone else, or is using a digital watch to help, make the reward depend on coming at the right time and then reading another time, or showing the time some hours or minutes later.

Newspaper Graphs Make graphs to show the cost of second-hand cars against the size of the engine, or the age of the car. How does this vary for Australian-made versus imported cars?

Make graphs to show the cost of real estate against the number of bedrooms, or the distance from the Melbourne GPO, or from the closest local railway station. Does this differ for flats, units and houses?

What difference does having a tennis court or a swimming pool make to the cost of a property?

Mathematics in Every Hobbies and Recreations Investigate the mathematics, including problem solving, and logical thinking, that occurs in popular everyday recreational activities such as:

— flying a kite: consider the geometry and symmetry of the kite, its mass, its surface area, how high it flies, what angle the string makes to the ground, …;

— playing board games, such as chess, draughts, noughts-and-crosses, and congkak, and other traditional games;

— sailing toy boats: consider the volume and mass of the boat, the area of the sails, the length and angle of ropes and masts, the angle of sailing into or before the wind, …;

— making scale models, and playing with scale models of aeroplanes, ships, castles, dolls’ houses, space-craft, cars and trucks, racing cars, trains, …;

— ??? what are some popular hobbies? — survey the class, and investigate the hobbies!