Blown Out of Proportion
In preparing a workshop about proportional reasoning for the 2011 NCTM Annual Meeting, I came across the following from “Learning and Teaching Ratio and Proportion: Research Implications” by Cramer, Post, and Currier, which appears in Research Ideas for the Classroom, edited by Douglas T. Owens. The authors discuss the following problem, which they presented to a class of pre-service elementary teachers:
Sue and Julie were running equally fast around a track. Sue started first. When she had run 9 laps, Julie had run 3 laps. When Julie completed 15 laps, how many laps had Sue run?
The authors claimed, “Thirty-two out of 33 pre-service elementary education teachers in a mathematics methods class solved this problem by setting up and solving a proportion: 9/3 = x/15.”
I wanted to be surprised. Sadly, I was not.
Participants in my workshop (all current middle or high school math teachers) were asked to solve the same problem. Several incorrect answers were suggested, among them 3, 15, 27, and 45. Less than 40% of the attendees obtained the correct answer, 21.
This is frustrating, as proportional reasoning is extremely useful in analyzing real-world phenomena. In fact, it’s even applicable to language arts, as evidenced by the following graphic from my presentation:
The teachers in my workshop aren’t the only ones who have difficulty with proportional reasoning. Students have endless trouble, too…
Teacher: Today, we will discuss inverse proportion. Here’s an example: “If it takes 6 days for 2 men to finish a task, how long will it take 3 men to complete the same task?” The number of men needed is inversely proportional to the number of days required. Consequently, 3 men will be able to complete the task in 6 × 2/3 = 4 days.
Student: Oh, I see! I think I’ve got a real-life application of this. If it takes 6 hours for 2 men to hike to the top of a hill, then it will only take 4 hours for 3 men to hike to the top!