Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Place of Place Value

Perhaps one of the most important foundational concepts in mathematics is place value. As the Massachusetts Department of Education rightly observes, “The subtly powerful invention known as place value enables all (my emphasis) of modern mathematics, science, and engineering. A thorough understanding removes the mystery from computational algorithms, decimals, estimation, scientific notation, and—later—polynomials” (Massachusetts Department of Education (2007). In fact, it is when students first meet polynomials in algebra, that the lack of a proper grounding in place value becomes painfully apparent. Most likely a significant number of the difficulties that students experience with math may be traced to place value.

I reviewed the state standards of various states with regard to place value. I looked for an explicit reference to “regrouping,” the current term for what we used to call “borrowing” and “carrying.” Personally, I prefer to call it “filling the cup” and “dumping the cup.” In the same vein, I like to call the “ones” place the “loose ones.” My survey of state standards resulted in a mixed bag. Some states require students to do little more than name the place value of a particular digit. Other states expect students to use various means to model place value. Alaska asks students to not only perform the operations of addition and subtraction, but to explain those operations.

State standards have their utility, but apparently whatever the specific state standard, students are able to follow the regrouping recipe without having any real understanding of why the recipe works. In fact, adults of all ages add and subtract by mindlessly following the recipe. Most adults, and of course, all children could do with a solid grounding in place value.

I have a number of activities I use to make place value explicit. Tomorrow I will tell you about an activity I like to call “The Chocolate Factory.”

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