# Commutativity in Fraction Multiplication

2/3 x 6              6 x 2/3

Do you think differently about each?

I had not really given this much thought because we do both in 5th grade, multiply a fraction by a whole number and whole number by a fraction. However, recently, when working with a group of 4th grade teachers and looking more closely at the standards and my curriculum, I am beginning to see a distinct difference. I now look at each expression from a different perspective. Not that both ideas do not arise at multiple grade levels in some form or another, but it is so interesting to me as to which thinking would come before the other.

Let’s first look at the standards…

Interesting. For me, taking a fraction of a group feels more “natural” and intuitive than multiplying a whole number by a fraction, however in the learning trajectory of multiplication and building of unit fractions composing a whole, the multiplication of a whole by a fraction feels like the natural next step.

For our upcoming Illustrative Mathematics professional development, I was collecting work samples for the following problem (thanks Jody:)

“Presley is wrapping 6 packages. Each package needs 2/3 of a yard of ribbon. How much ribbon will she use for wrapping the 6 packages?”

As anticipated, I received a wide variety of solutions to arrive at 4 yards of ribbon. Here are just a few examples in what I think is the progression I expect (some of them got finished  quickly and opted to show a few ways to solve).

They all finished fairly quickly and as I was walking around I thought it was really interesting to see such a variety in the equations they used to represent the problem. We came together as a whole group and I asked them for the equations they thought best represented the problem. The most common answers were: 2/3 x 6 = 4, 6 x 2/3= 4 and 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3= 12/3 = 4.

I asked them if there was a difference between the equations and there was a unanimous “No” because they mean the same thing. “They all get 4.” In my head I was very excited that commutativity was something they see when finding a solution, but I was also curious if it worked the same in the opposite direction. I asked if we could narrow it down to two equations and they all agreed that the repeated addition was the same as 6 x 2/3 because it was “six groups of 2/3.” Interesting, so they see that in the numeric representation but not contextually?

I then asked them to write 6 x 2/3 and 2/3 x 6 on the top of their journal page and think about them without the previous context.  I posed, “If I gave you these two problems to solve, would you think about them the same way? Do you think about them differently?” I was curious to hear their thoughts on the commutativity.

The conversation after was so great and interesting! There is a difference when going from number to context, however when put in context, I think students use whatever strategy is easiest for them to arrive at the answer. Is this what is truly meant by contextualizing and decontexualizing in the SMPs?

To further intrigue me, I went and pulled a few fourth graders to interview during my planning period. It was so interesting that they saw this as a whole number times a fraction because it was “six 2/3’s.” Their connection to multiplication and “groups of” was evident. I did love how they did 3 of the 2/3s first to get 2 and then doubled that to get 4.

This 4th grader was the most interesting..

She solved it as 2/3 of 6 and arrived at 4. I asked her if she could write an equation for the problem she solved and she wrote 2/3 of 6 = 4. Completely because I am so nosy, I asked her to write 6 x 2/3 under that. I asked how she thought about that problem? Would she solve it the same? She said, “No, that is 6 of the 2/3’s so I have to multiply the 2 and 3 by 6.” She proceeded and ended with 12/18. She saw the numerator and denominator as numbers in and of themselves and used the distributive property to arrive at her answer instead of thinking about the 2/3 as a number. This was something I had never thought of before! I wish I had more time with her because I SO wanted to ask if that makes sense, but since my planning runs into dismissal, she had to get back to class! Argh!

This progression (to me) now seems to be more about building on student’s understanding of multiplication then about what is more intuitive for students to do. That is such a revelation to me. In second and third grade students do so much in “sharing” situations, that I had assumed it was en route to this skill of taking a fraction of a number when in fact it is more about the operations. It builds multiplication and division. Those operations then progress from operations with whole numbers to operations with fractions and from there students start to build deeper understandings of the properties of operations.

This is of course, all my interpretation based on my experiences and perspective of the student work, but how awesome! I cannot wait to share this with the 4th grade teachers along with the video of the kids chatting with me about this, awesome stuff!!

-Kristin

## 2 thoughts on “Commutativity in Fraction Multiplication”

1. howardat58

I came to this from your latest post.
There is always a tepmtation to abandon the problem setting and rush to the numbers and operations. If we are wanting fractions and operations to have meaning then keeping the problem in view will help.
In this case, with Presley and the ribbon, what is important is that 2/3 is used as an operation on a unit, which is yards, so 2/3 of a yard is a length of ribbon. So the problem is now ” we need 6 lots of 2/3 of a yard”, dropping the word “ribbon”. Now the problem is simply seen as 6 times 2/3 of a yard, and yields 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3, or 6 x 2/3 (which in multiplication jargon is strictly 2/3 multiplied by 6). Now, seeing the result as 6 times the numerator, all divided by the denominator is straightforward.(so answer is 12/3 or 12 thirds, or best of all 12 thirds of a yard.

Incidentally, I wonder how many of the kids could answer the question “4 what ?”.

ps I have a bee in my bonnet about fractions !

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