Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Have Measured Out My Life with Coffee Spoons

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.

(from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot.)

We find that in doing measurement activities, children learn about number. It’s a two-way street.  Our approach is not, “Well, we’ll teach the kids about number, and once they understand number, then we can teach them about measurement, because measurement is based on number.” We find it works the other way, too: by doing various measurement activities, which are very engaging for the students, they’re building their number ideas.

(from Math Trailblazers, quoting one of the developers.)

I think the program is pretty good with measurement. Kids like to measure things, and the program builds on that; it builds on their interests. 

(from Math Trailblazers, quoting a 3d grade teacher.)

"Kids like to measure things?"  Really?  I've never noticed my kids show any particular interest in measuring.  I have noticed, however, that Trailblazers spends an unbelievable amount of time and effort on measurement, from the Bouncing Ball lab to the above worksheet, part of an entire section that has the kids measuring random objects in hands and cubits (forearm lengths).  Why?  In order to demonstrate what a bad idea it is to use non-standard units!


  1. Well, I've never done coffee spoon math but the twist tie and straw thing they want you to do to build cubes in Everyday Math was... NO FUN!! From now on, I'm using my Math-U-See cubes for everything. :)

  2. Ack! I'm still writing this thing! Keep checking back -

  3. Sorry! Now I see what you mean with the handspan thing. THAT sort of thing is useful maybe once when introducing "why we have standard measurements." Did you ever do exercises like the "shape museum?" Bring things to school in a bag that are different shapes? For "circle," your kid could bring in a curler and so on. We had the same approach to literacy when my older kids were little: "find some things that begin with B and draw them on this paper." One kid drew BEER for his kindergarten paper. The mug was pretty realistic, so I wonder if Daddy helped. :)

  4. In the room the teachers come and go
    Talking constructivist math lingo.

    Seriously, I agree with you on this. If this serves the goals of math education, then those goals are so unambitious that it's hard to justify any intervention at all.

    It reminds me of how parents spend so much time and effort teaching their one-year-olds the names of the different colors. (I confess to having done this myself.) As if the kids would never learn the names of colors without instruction!

    But at least that usually involves some enjoyable parent-child interaction. My guess is that kids experience this measurement stuff as just one more pointless busy work activity. They may like the chance to get up and move around a little, but is it really more educationally valuable than what they would have otherwise chosen to do with that time?

  5. "What do you think about when you make an estimate?" I'm not sure I could answer that question now, as a 27-year-old. I can't imagine what a 7-year-old with limited writing abilities would do if an adult wasn't there to tell them what to write.

  6. By the way, I love Prufrock. I first discovered it in my 12th grade honors English class and analyzed it over an exam review session at Pizza Hut with my classmates.

  7. I was wondering when someone would bring up "What do you think about when you make an estimate?" The correct answer, of course, is "lunch".

    This is a good example of how Trailblazers turns kids off of math. This question is way beyond the ability of a second-grader to answer, and can only be answered "correctly" by guessing what the textbook writers wanted to hear. And then the kids are supposed to write it down, which is boring for a kid who's good at English, and overwhelming for a kid who isn't good at English. And in true Trailblazers fashion, it has nothing to do with math!

  8. To make it worse, there are many areas where an informal measurement is just fine. I'm a darn good cook, and I don't weigh my onions, I pick them up and make a guess. I rarely measure my salt, I take a pinch and assume that's good enough. Likewise, when I'm cutting cloth to sew, I don't whip out a ruler to make sure I have exactly a quarter inch of leeway around my lines, I use my pinky finger. It's just easier.