Fractions: A Realisation About Educational Priorities

Although fractions tend to be one of the concepts I cover most often with students in my work at Sylvan Learning Centre, I never quite realised how critical of a concept they were in so many grades of high school. For example, I never realised that fraction topics are discussed in every grade between 3 and 12 in British Columbia.

I found this particularly interesting because fractions may be a Canadian priority but perhaps are not such a critical component of other education systems. I taught at a vocational high school in France last year, and my students were learning occupations such as plumbing, construction, and painting. One of my classes in which I assisted was the first class in a unit on systems of measurement; the students were shown how to convert Imperial measurements to metric, and then were expected to do so later. The metric system is more conducive to working with decimals than fractions (e.g. 3.4 km) because it is based on unit conversions that are factors of ten, whereas the Imperial system typically uses fractions, whether it be on rulers (e.g. 1/16-inch) or road signs (e.g. 3/4 mile). Since France uses the metric system almost exclusively, and has done so for decades, the majority of my high school students didn’t even know what fractions were, and fewer still knew how to perform even basic fraction operations. One of the teachers of the class didn’t even know how to convert decimals to fractions; I had to show her after class.

At that moment I realised that not every education system “is created equal”: that is to say, different systems have different priorities, because different cultures, economies, and societies have different focuses. It reminded me once again that just because the public school system has outlined a concept as a requirement for the provincial curriculum, that fact in itself does not mean that that concept is the most essential piece of information for our students’ futures. Perhaps in certain circumstances it may be preferable to teach content that is different from the prescribed curriculum in order that students gain essential skills and are able to explore rather than fulfilling the requirements of a checklist that is less useful and/or interesting.

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