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Adding + It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics
This lesson focuses on mathematical procedures for multiplying by powers of 10. Mr. Angelo designs the work to progress from simple examples (multiplying by 10, 100, and 1,000), to more complex ones (multiplying by multiples of powers of 10), to multiplying by powers of 10 less than one.4 He stages the examples so that the procedure he is trying to teach covers more and more cases, thus leading to a more general rule usable for multiplication by any power of 10 other than 10°=1.
Mr. Angelo asks brief questions to engage students in the steps he is taking. By giving the students a rule, he simplifies their learning, heading off frustration and making getting the right answer the point—and likely to be attained. Concerned about the spring testing, he attempts to ensure that his students develop a solid grasp of the procedure and can use it reliably. He is careful to connect what are often two disjointed fragments: a rule for adding zeros when multiplying by powers of 10 greater than one and a different rule for moving the decimal point when multiplying by powers of 10 less than one.
Although Mr. Angelo integrates these two “rules,” he does not work in the underlying conceptual territory. He does not, for example, explain why, for problems such as 30×70=?, students multiply the 3 and the 7. He might have shown them that 30×70=3×10×7×10 and that, using associativity and commutativity, one can multiply 3 by 7 and then multiply that product by 10 times 10, or 100. Instead, he skips this opportunity to help the procedure make sense and instead adds an extra twist to the rule. He also does not show his students what they are doing when they “move the decimal point.” In fact, of course, one does not “move” the decimal point. Instead, when a number is multiplied by a power of 10 other than one, each digit can be thought of as shifting into a new decimal place. For example, since .05 is one tenth times .5, in .5×10–1=?, the 5 can be thought of as shifting one place to the right—to the hundredths place, which is one tenth of one tenth. If a 5 is in the tens place, then multiplying by 10 shifts it to the left one place, to the hundreds place: What was 50 is now 500. Describing these changes in terms of “adding zeros” or “moving the decimal point” stays at the surface level of changes in written symbols and does not go beneath to the numbers themselves and what it means to multiply them. Students miss an opportunity to see and use the power of place-value notation: that the placement of digits in a numeral determines their value. A 5 in the tens place equals 50; in the hundredths place, 0.05; and in the ones place, 5. Mr. Angelo offers his students an effective and mathematically justifiable rule, but he does so without exploring its conceptual underpinnings.