What Sane Person Writes a Novel about Fractions?

fractions“Mathematics is boring. Why do we have to study it anyway?”

“Do I REALLY have to finish all my Math homework? It’s just the same stuff over and over, and it makes no sense to me.”

“I hate doing these algebra exercises. They are SOOOOO boring.”

“I don’t understand this. It’s stupid. Why can’t I do something useful with my time?”

If you are a parent or teacher, then you have probably heard it all. The whining. The complaining. The angry outbursts. For a logical and emotionless subject, Mathematics has an uncanny ability to draw passionate responses from young people. It’s seldom a “YAY, I have Math homework” kind of response. No, it’s more like “ARGHHHH, I HATE Math!”

So why would anyone choose Mathematics as a starting point for a youth novel? And note that we are not talking about some mystical and captivating mathematical subject like String Theory or Equations of Relativity. No, sirree! We like a challenge, don’t we? Out with the exciting stuff, so we can sink our teeth into a common, garden-variety subject: fractions. Yes, you read that correctly. FRACTIONS. Not eye-popping fractal mathematics, mind you. Just regular fractions with numerators and denominators: those little number beasts you encountered way back in grade three of four.

Fractions in all their simple glory were the starting point for “Fractonia”. So is this a story about fractions? (Are you yawning and shaking your head in disbelief?) Yes, but probably not in the way you think. When I was at school and fractions were introduced to the class, the teacher talked about picking apples from a tree. (That was in the days when children actually went outside and climbed trees, so students could relate to the image of apples hanging from a tree.) More recently, while doing research for a new project, I took a look at some junior school materials focused on fractions. The apples were gone from the chapters about fractions. In their place, the reference to pizza slices appeared more often than anything else. (It seems the “an apple a day” phrase has been replaced with “a slice of pizza a day“.) Imagine this pizza being cut into pieces. Your friend eats one slice. You eat five slices. What percentage of the pizza is left? Is this stimulating your imagination and encouraging learning, or is it just making you think that you are hungry? Is there a different way to visualize fractions?

I set out to create a story that would give readers an entirely new perspective on fractions. Why? So they could better understand fractions? No – so they could know it is possible for something as “boring” as fractions to become interesting just by changing our perspective. I wanted to paint an imaginative picture over those sad pizza slices with no story to tell – a picture so unexpected that it would encourage readers to create their own imaginative ways to view subjects they found “boring”. In my experience, an interested student is more likely to learn and overcome learning difficulties than a student who is bored with the topic they are studying. In her article entitled, “How the Power of Interest Drives Learning“, Annie Murphy Paul says the following: “When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.” If we learn better when we are interested, why not find a way to make what we have to learn interesting and engaging? It seems like a simple, common-sense way to ensure we learn more and enjoy doing it.

At its core, “Fractonia” is less about Mathematics and more about attitude. Yes, fractions are part of the story, but no, the story is about exploration, discovery, and possibility. It’s about taking responsibility for our own learning. Our learning is not our parents’ or our teachers’ responsibility – it is OURS: yours and mine. We don’t have to wait for our teacher to make the subject exciting or justify why we should study it. We don’t need to be entertained before we can learn something. No, the process of learning is an adventure that can be created and hosted inside your very own imagination. Go on the adventure, or stay home and mope about how boring everything is.

If you have never had a teacher show you HOW to create your very own learning adventure, sit down and read. But don’t read to be entertained – read to discover. Read so the book can become your teacher and show you how to create your own learning adventure. “Fractonia” is my adventure with something as simple as fractions. Other authors will take you on different adventures. You may not be ready to write your adventure in a book, but you are ready to have an adventure. There are no age limits on learning – we never outgrow a good adventure. What will your next adventure be?

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2 thoughts on “What Sane Person Writes a Novel about Fractions?

  1. Hi Pearl I have for many years wanted to revisit my maths class, whether it be algebra, fractions or geometry. I believe my maths was awful because my foundations of understanding maths just was not there, I would love to find out was it me or the learning system? Can I switch on my math brain? I am a right brain dominant thinker so what are my chances of exploring the world of fractions? Congratulations Pearl Berndt Lewis on your book, trust it will take children into the wonder filled world of fractions. Blessings Charmaine

    • Thank you for your comment, Charmaine. Can you switch on your math brain? YES! If you WANT to flip the switch, you can do it. Don’t wait another year – start small, but start soon. Build new foundations of understanding, and you will learn to enjoy some of those topics that were a drag at school. Interestingly enough, the left vs. right brain dominance theory is no longer as strong as it once was – this short article highlights some of the recent findings: http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/a/left-brain-right-brain.htm . So, even if you are more “right-brained” in your natural abilities, you can work on your “left-brain” skill set and develop it. You may never get the urge to become a maths professor (because this way of thinking probably doesn’t resonate with your personality), but you can certainly muscle up on the basic skills in that field. And there is plenty of research to show that learning new skills (or developing rusty skills) is a powerful way for us to maintain mental vitality. The effect of learning new things is apparently more powerful when we delve into those areas that feel less “natural” for us. So, what are your chances of exploring the world of fractions? VERY GOOD. If you want a good place to start, I can recommend the Khan Academy – https://www.khanacademy.org/ – it’s a non-profit educational organization aimed at bringing high quality, free education to people everywhere. I have tried some of their free mini classes (they present topics with short online videos), and can recommend the academy as a great place for adults to revisit school maths. The instruction is good, and you can stop a video anywhere and think about what was said. It’s very different from sitting in a live classroom environment, as you control the pace of learning. If you decide to embrace the challenge of revisiting maths, do stop by and let me know how it works out for you.

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