Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Perfect Play for My closest neighbor

Joe Schwartz at Exit10a wrote a fraction comparison post that prompted me to write up more of my experience and thoughts on this game.

Let's find perfect play
This week, I intended to use the game one last time with the 4th graders as an extended warm-up to our class. The challenge I presented:

If we got super lucky and were given perfect cards for each round of the game, what are the best possible plays?

My intention was to spend about 20 minutes on this. Depending on how quickly it went and the kids' reactions, I considered giving them a follow-up for a short homework: what are the best plays if we include all cards A (1) through K (13)?

How did it go?
In the end, the basic activity took the whole class. These comparisons were difficult for the kids, so we spent time talking about each different strategy for comparison:

  1. common denominators
  2. common numerators
  3. distance to 1
  4. relationship to another benchmark number. Like 1/2 in Joe's 4/6 and 8/18 example, a benchmark is a "familiar friend" that should be relatively easy to see it is larger than one and smaller than another. In practice, 1/2 seems to be the most popular benchmark. 

For visualization, drawing on a number line seemed to work best.

I did not assign the full deck challenge as homework. Instead, we gave them some more work with fractions of pies and bars.

What have I learned?
This game is really effective at distinguishing levels of understanding:
(0) some kids are totally at sea. They don't really understand what this a/b thing means, how a and b are related, etc. These kids struggle with the first round of the game when the target is 0, when the idea is to just want to make their fraction as small as possible.

(1) Some kids have got a basic understanding of the meaning of the fraction and can play confidently when the target is 0 or 1. They might still be weak about equivalent fractions. Trying to play some spot-on equivalents when 1/3 and 1/2 are targets is a give-away.

(2) familiar with some frequent friends: kids who can tell readily whether their plays are larger or smaller than the target for 1/3, 1/2, 3/4.

(3) proficient: have at least one consistent strategy they can work through to make a comparison

(4) fraction black-belts: using multiple strategies, already familiar with many of the most common comparisons.

What would I do differently?
Generally, I think it is valuable to spend more time and more models directed at the basic understanding of what fractions mean. The kids who were at or close to stage 4 have, over the years, been seeing diagrams of pies, cakes, chocolate bars, number lines and physical experience with baking measures and fractional inches on measuring tapes and rulers. Oh, and also actual pies (mostly pizza), cakes, cookies, and chocolate bars discussed using fractional language.

More locally, for this game in a class of mixed levels, I would

  • lean toward doing this more as a cooperative puzzle
  • re-order the targets for the rounds as 0, 1, 1/2, 3/4, 1/3, 2 (note: I don't have strong feelings about where 2 fits in this sequence)
  • I also would consider allowing equivalent fractions to the target as winning plays


  1. Thanks for your notes on the game, Joshua! I'm doing typo whack-a-mole on the book files today, so I took the time to rearrange the target rounds. I put target-2 after 1/2, and then made the two hardest fraction rounds optional. I love it how bouncing these ideas from one teacher to another makes the game better with each iteration.

    1. We benefit so much from what you (and others) have done, it always feels good to make a contribution as well!