# Math with More Bad Drawings

In my last post, I shared some abominable strip diagrams. Last night, my friend messaged me again about some different models. Also pretty terrible.

“Sorry to hit you up for math help but I can’t find any like this on the internet.”

There are two reasons for this, the second of which I’ll get to later in this post. The first is because this model is too bloated and trying to show competing ideas.

Here’s a cleaned up version of the model.

Any (good) area model should simultaneously represent multiplication and division. They’re inverses of each other. If you understand the components of the model, you should be able to write equations related to the model using both operations.

If I look at this model in terms of multiplication, I know I can multiply the length (7) times the width (13) to find the area (91). This area model represents 7 × 13 using the partial products of 7 × 10 and 7 × 3.

If I look at this model in terms of division, I know I can divide the area (91) by the width (7) to find the length (13). This area model represents 91 ÷ 7 using the partial quotients of 70 ÷ 7 and 21 ÷ 7.

All that from this one model. I don’t need all the “noise” included in the original model. For example, what is the purpose of writing the dimensions along the top as “10|70” and “3|21”? Knowing how an area model works, the only place 70 and 21 appropriately appear are inside the rectangle to show they represent area. Putting them along the top edge creates confusion about their meaning. Our students don’t need more confusion in their lives.

The repeated subtraction underneath isn’t terrible, but it’s unnecessary if you just want to know what multiplication or division sentence this model represents. Now, if a student were building the area model while using the partial quotients strategy, then the subtraction might be a useful recording strategy, but that’s not the same as being part of the model itself. I think it’s important to distinguish between those two things: features of the model itself and recording strategies a person might use as they build the model.

So the first problem my friend shared wasn’t great, but of course there was a second problem.

And it’s worse.

Holy cow! Bring on the tears.

I get that a student solving 46 ÷ 2 might think about and possibly even jot down potential options for partial quotients, but there is no reason this needs to be shown to children on their homework. And there’s still the problem of there being two numbers side-by-side along the length. Does someone think interpreting bad models is a sign of rigorous math instruction? I don’t.

Here’s the cleaned up version.

While the original model was terrible, the question wasn’t bad at all. I’d probably revise it slightly though. I might say, “Gina found partial quotients to solve 46 ÷ 2. She recorded her work in the area model shown. Circle the number(s) in Gina’s model that shows the quotient of 46 ÷ 2. Convince me you circled the right numbers in the model.”

So earlier in the post I mentioned there are two reasons my friend couldn’t find anything like this on the internet. The first is because these were bad drawings. I tried looking for videos of someone solving a division problem using partial quotients and an area model which led me to the second problem. So many videos out there of varying quality. And by varying, I mean it’s easy to find videos that aren’t all that great. Many demonstrate either a limited view of partial quotients or a limited understanding of the area model.

One of the great things about using partial quotients to divide is the flexibility in how you can choose to decompose the dividend. In the first problem in this post, for example, the dividend (91) was decomposed into 70 and 21, which are both easy to divide by 7. It could just as easily been decomposed in to

• 90 and 1
• 35, 35, and 21
• 63 and 28

While looking for videos to share with my friend, I found these (Video 1 | Video 2). What I noticed is that the partial quotients method is carried out in a rigid way that maps closely to the long division algorithm. In one of the videos, the presenter even connects the area model to long division notation.

The emphasis on place value is appreciated, but students deserve to know that they do have choice in how they decompose the dividend. Place value isn’t the only way.

These were the good videos. They might have missed out on sharing the power of this strategy, but at least the math is good. (I still didn’t share them with my friend.)

Sadly, there were also the bad videos. My major beef with these is that if you aren’t familiar or comfortable with partial quotients, you could just as easily watch a bad video and think you’re getting good information. These videos are so bad because, intentionally or not, they demonstrate big misunderstandings about the area model.

Example 1

In this example, the students are writing the numbers in the wrong place on the model. The partial areas (800, 370, and 23) should all be inside the rectangle while the lengths (100, 70, and 4) should all be outside along the top. I’m not blaming the kids. From what I can tell, they invented this strategy in their class (Cool!) but their teacher helped them make this video to share their strategy far and wide on the internet (Not cool!). Rather, as a teacher, I would have noted the students’ misunderstandings, helped them develop a better understanding of the area model, and then helped them create a video to show off their strategy.

Example 2

This one doesn’t even try to represent the values of the numbers. For whatever reason, the long division algorithm is carried out in boxes. Which, by the way, I don’t care if your video calls this the “box method” or “rectangle method.” It does not excuse you from misrepresenting the area model, because that’s what you’re doing. So many people believe math is confusing enough. Don’t add fuel to the fire.

Considering the time and effort that goes into building an understanding of area as a model for multiplication and division, we shouldn’t be making or showing these bad models to our students. We shouldn’t be showing them to our parents either. Seriously, if you share YouTube videos with your parents, please preview them and make sure the mathematics is good. Make sure they model the kinds of thinking, reasoning, and representing we want our own students to be developing.

Remember, the only people who should be making bad drawings are our students because they’re still figuring all of this out. Our job is to help them so that over time they get better.

Before you say anything, yes, the title of this blog post also happens to be the title of Ben Orlin’s amazing blog. I don’t care. I want it to be the title of this post, too.

Math should make sense. Or at least, you should be able to make sense of math. And any drawings you create along the way should aid in that sense making. And any drawings you encounter drawn by someone else should similarly aid in your sense making.

But what happens when they don’t? What happens when kids are forced to do math with – literally – bad drawings?

A few days ago a friend of mine sent me the following message:

“I am so lost trying to help my 4th grader. Do you have a secret website where I can find a strip diagram cheat sheet? I have never seen anything like this before.”

Yeah, me neither. Because this drawing is crap.

I mean, seriously, where do I begin? The three boxes with 32 in them actually make sense. Everything underneath? Not so much, especially to a 9 or 10 year old.

• I tend to prefer curly braces to bracket off clearly defined amounts, like, say, the total. This looks like someone just dragged it over partway to the right and then went, “Eh, good enough.”
• Then there’s a random gap which technically should represent a quantity of its own since this whole thing is built as a linear model.
• And finally we have that little scratch at the end with a 4 under it. Why is that not a curly brace? Are children supposed to know the difference between quantities represented by curly braces and those by line segments that have a slight curve at the end?

Here, let me fix this.

Can I guarantee that the meaning of this particular strip diagram will jump off the page and make sense to anyone who views it? Of course not. But at least now we have some consistency to the stuff on the bottom and the random gap is removed. At least now a child might be able to notice, “Oh the two numbers on the bottom (m and 4) should add up to the total of the numbers in the three boxes above.”

By the way, I should probably stop here and say: Strip diagrams are a TOOL, not a math skill unto themselves! They are meant to be used as a way to represent relationships so that you have an easier time determining which operation(s) to use. So rather than giving a strip diagram and asking students to write an equation and solve it, why not ask, “You set up the following strip diagram to solve a problem. How could you use the diagram to help you find the unknown value? Describe the steps you would take.” Honestly, I care less about students’ computation accuracy with this particular question than I do their ability to tell me that they would do something like multiply 32 times 3 and then subtract 4.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only example my friend sent.

Do we hate children? Do we want to make them cry? Because they have every right to as they try to make sense of these horrendous models.

My loathing is not because I can’t figure these out. I have figured them out. And I hate them. They’re just so cumbersome and confusing. Any mathematical meaning they’re trying to convey is muddled by inconsistencies and disproportionate boxes.

Let me make some attempt to fix this. No promises.

I just couldn’t with choice D. That was just a bad model all around. Sure it’s a wrong answer, but there’s no reason it has be a bad model on top of being the wrong answer.

No wonder parents take to Facebook to vent about math these days. If you’re required to use these materials, and I hope you aren’t, then please, please, please keep them at school. For the love of god, don’t send them home.

By the way, all of the drawings I made for this post can be made fairly easily in Google Drawing or the newest version of Powerpoint. They both include automatic features that help you line up and center your boxes and curly braces. Play around and practice. It is well worth your time, not to mention it’s pretty empowering to be able to create the exact strip diagram, number line, or other image you want to use in math class.

Our students deserve to make sense of math with drawings that make sense. Please do everything you can to ensure the only bad drawings are ones students are making themselves because they’re still figuring all this out. With practice and your help, over time they’ll get better.