Monday, July 29, 2013

The Demise of the Teeter-Totter - and Its Implications for Algebra

Years ago, I was teaching in an elementary school computer lab. There was a software program I was using, where the students were supposed to balance bags of gold. On one side of the balance was a bag, for example, weighing 7 pounds, and they had to balance it with a combination of two or three other bags, e.g., 2 and 5, 3 and 4, or 1, 2, and 4. I was AMAZED and discouraged that so many of the students found this difficult. You see, years before that, teeter totters had been removed from many public playgrounds, because of insurance mandates. Many kids just didn't and don't know how balances work. This has big implications for mathematics and equation solving.

A few years later, I was substitute teaching in a 5th grade and the lesson was on balancing equations.  Again, I observed that the students simply didn't understand how balances worked.  They could not predict what would happen if something heavy was added to one side of an equation that was balanced.  No wonder so many of them are lost in beginning algebra.  

I am not sure we can bring back teeter-totters, but we can certainly bring back playing with balances in the younger grades.  Get the equipment out and let kids play with it.  

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