“They’ll Need It for High School” (Part 3)

I’m picking “TNIFHS” back up. At the end of Part 1, I promised Part 2 would answer “What are the big ideas in elementary school mathematics that students will need for high school?” Instead, I talked times tables.

In this third half, I’ll refocus on these big ideas. Or one of them — one that came up in that initial “they’ll need long division for high school” conversation.

More than the standard algorithm, what students will need is an understanding of division as sharing (finding the number in each group) and measuring (finding the number of groups). More generally, what students will need is an understanding of the fundamental meanings of all four operations.

Here’s part of a task I presented to my secondary math colleagues:

Evaluate, or simplify, each set of expressions. Make as many connections as you can conceptually & procedurally, pictorially & symbolically.

fundamental meanings of all four operations

Sticking with division, in this task (−6) ÷ (+3) was chosen to bring to mind sharing (3 groups, −2 in each group) whereas 6/5 ÷ 3/5 was chosen to evoke measuring (3/5 in each group, 2 groups). (This often leads teachers themselves to revisit 6 ÷ 3.)


(−6) ÷ (+3) as sharing (top) and 6/5 ÷ 3/5 as measuring (bottom)

Flexibility is key. Consider (−6) ÷ (−3), 6/5 ÷ 3, 6 ÷ 0.3, 0.6 ÷ 3, 6x ÷ 3, 6x ÷ 3x, etc. (Note: division of fractions & integers are high school topics in Western Canada.)

(I’m not saying that dividing by a fraction — or decimal fraction — always means measuring. You can think sharing, which can be challenging. Andrew Stadel’s estimation jams are my favourite examples of this. How long is “All Along the Watchtower”?


Did you see 2/3 in the picture? Did you divide by two, then multiply by three? In other words, did you invert and multiply? What’s the meaning of 2:40 ÷ 2/3 in this context?)

The subtraction set above is interesting. Teachers pick up that the expressions are variations on a theme: five “take away” two. Their pictorial representations tend to show subtraction as removal: “if you have five apples/quarters/x‘s/square root of two’s and I take away two…”


Pictorial representations that show subtraction as comparison (the “difference”!) are less frequent, but maybe more helpful.


5/4 − 2/4 as removal (top number line) and comparison (bottom number line)

Consider (+5) − (−2). To “take away” negative two from positive five means introducing zero pairs whereas the “difference” between positive five and negative two means understanding that positive five is seven greater than negative two.

This second meaning is probably more meaningful in high school. For example, subtraction as removal reduces (1.89t + 15) − (1.49t + 12) to an exercise in collecting like terms whereas subtraction as comparison has students contrasting rates of change (e.g., cost per additional pizza topping) and initial amounts (e.g., the price of a plain cheese pizza). Similarly, if F_1(C) = 9/5C + 32 and F_2(C) = 2C + 30, then (F_2 − F_1)(C) compares conversions given by an estimate and the formula. When solving |x − 5| = 2, it’s more helpful to ask “What numbers differ from five by two?” than think missing minuends in take away problems.

Addition and multiplication — as well as other big ideas needed for high school such as proportional reasoning (or “multiplicative thinking”?) — will be addressed in future posts.

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