While my desert island article is the one where Brian Cambourne shares the Conditions of Learning, Richard Skemp's “Relational Understanding and Instrumental Understanding” (reprinted in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, September 2006) is not far behind. And it may be better to discuss with preservice math teachers, since it doesn't require transfer from literacy to math. Despite being a rather difficult read, it never fails to provoke good discussion and deep thinking.
Previously on the blog I have: interviewed a baseball coach/math teacher about relational understanding, recorded student discussions, and a post about the article. So thisis only the fourth post, it's not like I'm obsessed.
I don't give a formal homework assignment too frequently, but still do for this reading as support is helpful. (Assignment.) I also have a workshop for use in class:
After time to work through the questions, Sam led the start of the discussion. She hit the ideas of relational and instrumental, and solicited examples of the contrast for fraction addition and subtraction. But as she noted - it felt like multiplication and division was where the really interesting bits would be. So I split up the groups among multiplication and division and then recorded their quick explanations.
Loved that the key question "3/2 of what?" came up here. I was fascinated by the "sometimes it works, sometimes it won't" idea. That's a real vestige of instrumental understanding, when we are given rules but often not the conditions under which they apply.
We discussed the grid here for what might confuse students, and tried to connect back to context. Students often want to draw a picture for all the quantities, even though there is not 1/6 of a whole here, but they were taking 1/6 of 1/2.
The lack of a picture was good here, and we discussed how relational doesn't mean with pictures. I tend to ask them about pictures to push their understanding because they are more likely to have rules for the numeric than the visual. Although the grid method can become very rule driven, just like the numberline for integers. This discussion was also grounds for discussing the difference between explaining why a method works and justifying that it does work.
In the last explanation we were getting close on time, but they posed a couple good why questions to which they struggled to good answers.
One thing about university classes is that it can be hard to get them to ask each other questions as the duck and cover principle is well learned. I try to stress that the discussion is one of our best tools for pushing understanding, and in math ed classes, I try to frame it as teacher training - you need to practice posing questions. Still tough sometimes.
I'm satisfied that they see a difference in the modes of understanding. Fractions are just such good content for this, as math majors' computational fluency is strong, but they can tell there are things they don't get. One of the gratifying parts is how much they want to get it, and take on the goal of getting their students there as well.
Bonus: as they write their next blogposts, we might see some writing on this as well. First one in is from Matt - Instrumental vs Relational.