Friday, November 28, 2008

M5N3 Multiplication & Division of Decimal Numbers (3)

M5N3. Students will further develop their understanding of the meaning of multiplication and division with decimal fractions and use them.

OK, this is the third (and hopefully the last) in the series of posts discussing multiplication and division of decimal numbers. In the last two posts, we discussed multiplying and dividing decimal numbers by whole numbers and multiplying by decimal numbers. We are developing these ideas using only our understanding of whole number multiplication and a powerful idea about our numeration system, relative size of numbers. What is left for us now is dividing by decimal numbers. Let's go back to our problem:

Problem 4
A wire that is 2.4 meters long weighs 3.6 grams. How much will the same wire weigh if it is 1 meter long?

This problem requires us to divide 3.6 by 2.4. We already looked at dividing decimal numbers by whole numbers, but we have yet to consider division by decimal numbers. In some curricula, fraction arithmetic is discussed first, so we can change this division to division of fractions. However, that line of reasoning is not available if we follow the GPS. So, what can students do?

Whenever students encounter a new problem, we would like them to ask, "What do I know that I can use?" or "How is this problem similar to what I have studied previously?" Such a habit is an example of what the authors of Adding It Up (National Research Council, 200?) call productive disposition. Again, a diagram might help us think about this problem.

One possibility is to think about 2.4 as 24 0.1's as we did before. But, what do we get if we divide 3.6 by 24? Let's see what the diagram will show us:

We can tell from this diagram that the result of dividing 3.6 by 24 is the weight of a 0.1-meter wire. So, how can we find the weight of a 1-meter wire if we know that a 0.1-meter wire weighs 0.15 grams? Since 1 meter is 10 times as long as 0.1 meter, the weight should also be 10 times as much. So, to find the weight of a 1-meter wire, we just need to multiply the weight of a 0.1-meter wire by 10. So, a 1-meter wire will weigh 1.5 grams.

With Problem 3, we also had another approach that considered 10 times of the multiplier. What would a parallel reasoning in Problem 4 be like? If we make the divisor (2.4) into a whole number, what does it mean? That means we are looking at a 24-meter wire, instead of a 2.4-meter wire. Again, it's 10 times as long, therefore, it should weigh 10 times as much, i.e., 36 grams. But if we know that a 24-meter wire weighs 36 grams, we can find the weight of a 1-meter wire by simply dividing 36 by 24. We don't have to do anything with the result since we haven't changed the weight of 1-meter of wire when we considered the weight of the 24-meter wire. A diagram might show this approach clearly:

This second approach may be more useful to generalize a paper-and-pencil algorithm. Basically what we did was to multiply the divisor by a power of 10 to make it into a whole number. Then, the dividend must be multiplied by the same power of 10 - since the length of the wire is now that many times as long, it should weigh also that many times as much. Then, we can simply divide the new weight by the new length, we can find the weight for 1 meter. Therefore,

Another way of describing this process is to move the decimal point of the divisor (the number outside of the long division symbol) as many places as necessary to the right to make it into a whole number. Then, move the decimal point of the dividend the same number of places to the right as well - annexing 0's if necessary. Then, we can perform long division as we have done previously - either a whole number divided by a whole number or a decimal number divided by a whole number. Again, this is the familiar algorithm, isn't it?

As we saw in the three recent posts, the familiar multiplication and division algorithms can be meaningfully derived using only our knowledge of whole numbers and the idea of relative size of numbers. In the Japanese standards, they discuss decimal multiplication and division first because the algorithms are essentially the same as those of whole number multiplication and division. Thus, when students study multiplication and division, they can focus more on extending the meaning of multiplication and division. Then, when students study multiplication and division of fractions, they do not have to worry about dealing with the new meaning of operations AND the new algorithms. It is not clear if the GPS writers had the same intent, but I hope you see how students can develop multiplication and division algorithm for decimal numbers without knowing multiplication and division of fractions.