The other night at dinner as we all debriefed our days, I mentioned that I’d given my college students a problem about sharing brownies. “I should give the problem to you and see how you would solve it,” I mused to my kids, and my husband immediately said, “Let’s make brownies and solve the problem in real life!”
So we did. We threw together a pan of brownies from a mix we had sitting in our cupboard, and when they had cooled I cut and plated three square brownies for each kid. Then I handed them each a plate and a dinner knife and told them to figure out how to give every member of our 4-person family the same amount of brownie.
We like to ask sharing problems about food (“If there are 8 pancakes, how many can everyone have?”), because our kids, like all kids, are highly motivated by food and by fairness. But this is a challenging problem, without a clear, immediate solution.
Still, my kindergartener dove right in, deftly cutting all three brownies in half. She then paused for a moment with the two extra pieces before cutting them in half too and stacking a quarter brownie on top of each half-brownie portion. “Everyone gets a half and a piece,” she said when I asked her about her solution.
(Surprisingly, very few of my college-age students come up with this particular method initially, although once they have seen it they tend to prefer it. This semester one student commented on how surprised he was that a kindergartener would come up with this method right away when he, a math education major, didn’t think of it on his own.)
My 7-year-old stared and stared and stared at the brownies and I could see the gears turning in his head. Finally, several minutes after my daughter had confidently offered up her half and a piece, he said, “Okay, I think this will work,” and embarked upon a complicated cutting exercise that I would call “split the brownies into smaller and smaller pieces and hope it will all work out eventually.” First he cut one brownie into thirds, cut another brownie into fourths, cut a fourth in half, and put the half-quarter together with a full quarter to make another “third”. He then cut the last brownie into fourths, and proceeded to cut and re-cut any odd pieces out until he felt confident that he had a workable number of pieces.
He explained that everyone got a third and a quarter and a half quarter and a “small quarter” (half of half of a quarter). But when he actually distributed the pieces onto each of our plates, there were a few extra bits left behind. “Hmm, I don’t know if that really worked,” he said, and then shrugged and popped the extra pieces into his own mouth.
It was obviously interesting and fun to watch how my kids approached this problem on the very same day I watched my college students approach the same problem. But it was also interesting to listen to the informal language they used to talk about their solutions. They both already had some language for talking about fractions, and they both ran up against limits. The kindergartener could talk about halves, but once she got to quarters they became “pieces”. Nevertheless, with the motivation of actually getting to eat the brownies at the end, she was remarkably accurate at splitting the brownies into equal parts. The second grader could talk about halves and thirds and quarters, but then began talking about half-quarters and “smaller quarters” when he got down to eighths and sixteenths. And he made an interesting approximation of 1/3 by combining 1/8 and 1/4. This was not precisely equal to 1/3, but it was certainly close enough to feel fair.
My college students like to ask me questions like: “When would you start teaching this to students?” My answer is often: “Much earlier than you’d think!” When can kids start understanding fractions? Much earlier than you’d think! When can kids begin making sense of probability? Much earlier than you’d think! When can you give kids multiplication problems? Much earlier than you’d think! When can kids understand that a square is a type of rectangle? Much earlier than you’d think!
This particular problem involves both division and fractions, and while I had no idea what my 5- and 7-year-old children would do with it, I knew they would be able to do something. Kids have great ideas, and they have great ideas much earlier than you’d think!