…equals (write answer here).

When students are shown how to “do” math and are asked to perform copious amounts of computational answer-getting, they quickly and unfortunately develop the idea that math (and learning math) is primarily about right and wrong answers, void of context and steeped in mystery.  And the correct location for the answer is right after the equal sign. In such a setting, students who say 5×6 “is the same as” 6×5 get their statement affirmed and handed some new vocabulary to memorize: commutative property.

What does that statement even mean?  In context, 5 groups of 6 objects is different than 6 groups of 5 objects. That is, the pictures look different, although the total is the same. Is that it, end of lesson?  In some classrooms, yes.  But I think there is risk here by glossing over why and caring only about what or how, and that risk is losing the kids who are trying (desperately) to make sense out of math, especially when we assume they easily move between concrete and abstract. The pictures look different.  I don’t get it.  

You could use area models/congruent rectangles to try to convince them: See? 5×6 is the same as 6×5! Same dimensions! Same area! Same rectangle! Ta-da!

Wouldn’t it be amazing if school encouraged kids to be dubious and curious?  Wouln’t it be glorious if they asked, What about 21+ 9? Or 60 ÷ 2?, Or any of the infinite number of expressions that also equal 30? Are some expressions “more” equal than others? What exactly is going on here?

When people like Kristin  ask 3rd graders to sketch pictures to match two similar stories, then discusses with them whether or not order matters in symbolic notation–while remaining genuinely interested in and openly curious about their thinking– they are helping young students develop significantly different ideas about math and learning. In this setting, students know that the teacher respects and values their reasoning; together, they are all making sense of an idea of equality that reaches beyond “is” or “write the answer here” in a way that addresses misconceptions and helps them build a bridge between abstract and concrete.

While we’re on the subject of equality, what about these?

4/5 = 0.8
5 – 8 = 5 + (-8)
-12 – (-7) = -12 + 7 = 7 + (-12) = 7 – 12
a÷ x/y = a • y/x
-3/4 = 3/-4 = -(3/4)
-4(9) = 4(-9)
3(n + 7) = 3n + 21
-(a + b) = -a – b
x^0 = 1
Etc., including any formula or rule “given” to students.

If I want my students to understand equality deeply so they can use it purposefully, then I’ve got to do more than tell them that these expressions are equal, show how to change from one to the other, and then test that they can. And I’m beginning to understand that it is also a disservice to impose my reasons why. The sense-making needs to be theirs, not mine; they are completely capable of figuring out why these equations in particular are worthy of their attention.

“Same value” is just not convincing enough for me any more.

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