Trusting the digits: Developing place value understanding

For several years, across various school communities, a teacher will tell me, “My kids don’t really have a strategy for multiplying decimals other than the ‘stacking’ algorithm.” We talk some about how kids are stacking the numbers to be multiplied, using the whole-number algorithm and then “bumping back” the decimal point to reflect the problem at hand.

“Does the decimal point move?” I ask.

“I think so…” or “Not really, but that’s the idea…” or “Wait! It doesn’t move?” is what I usually hear.

“Could your kids predict the digits in this multiplication problem, without stacking to get the answer?” I wonder.

1.2 x .004

“No way,” they say. And in those moments I developed the kernel of a really promising string, based on the idea of “trusting the digits” and not moving the decimal point. It goes something like this….


Good morning, mathematicians. I know you are working on some decimal operations and today I brought a number string to help us all think about those problems. You know that mathematicians often rely upon a story, or context, as a way to just make sense of what’s going on. Since you are [5th, 6th, 7th] graders, you already know many contexts that we could use. Today, that will be your job — to give us some stories that could help us make sense.

As usual, the number string will start really friendly and then I’ll move us towards problems that will challenge all of us. Ya’ll ready? Got your partner? Okay, let’s go.

Here’s our first problem.

7 x 8 =

I know, I know, we already know the answer. So that’s not my question. My question is what’s a story that would help us make sense of this. And what does the 7 and the 8 mean in your story? What does your answer mean in your personal story? Turn and tell your partner about your context, and then listen to find out about theirs. Go!

After a short turn and talk, I solicit at least three different stories, being sure to record each of them on chart paper.

Okay, so now we have 7 tanks of 8 mini-sharks. Super cool! Thanks for that, Daria. And we have 7 tables of 8 people each, thanks to Rodney. And finally, we have 7 packs of 8 sticks of gum, thanks to Imani. I’m going to record our answer on this place value chart:

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.33.18 AM

What about now?

7 x 80 =

Let’s take up these stories from Daria, Rodney and Imani to think about: What stayed the same in their story? And what changed?

[Think time, then turn and talk.]

So, what happened in these stories? You can share something you and your partner talked about.

Hector: We talked about how the answer is 560, just ten times more than the last one, but that some of the stories don’t make sense any more.

Can you say more about that? Why is the answer ten times more? What caused that?

Hector: Yeah, so before you had 8 people at a table and now you have 80 people at a table. Ten times more people. But what my partner and were saying is that, that doesn’t make sense — like you wouldn’t have 80 people at a table.

David: But you could flip it.

What do you mean “flip it”?

David: So instead of 7 tables of 80 people, you could have 80 tables of 7 people.

What do you think, mathematicians? And what’s the 560 in their story?

Maria: Number of people all together. At all of the tables.

Okay, sounds like you are saying we might need to modify some of the contexts to make them fit the numbers here, but that it can be done. Other ideas about this?

Franky: Well, I kinda think it’s the same with Imani’s story. It needs a flip.

Who understands what Franky is saying and can build on his idea?

Jackie: So 7 packs of gum with 80 sticks is, like, not really a thing. But you could have 80 packs of gum with 7 sticks in it. Even though, personally, I don’t think they make gum in sevens.

Imani, what are you thinking about this? This was your story….

Imani: Yeah, I think packs of seven would be okay. Kinda small, but okay.

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.33.33 AMAlright, let’s keep going. Think about this problem — and our stories — and what’s happening to the numbers in these stories. Same questions: What’s changing? What’s staying the same?

8 x 70 =

Seems like lots of you want to check in with your partner? Yeah? Go ahead.

Okay, let’s get a new voice in this conversation — that always helps us. Can someone just get us started with something they noticed? Or something they talked about with their partner? Renny?

Renny: Well, it’s the same but different….The 7 and the 8 basically switched places and the answer stayed the same.

Who can say more about what Renny is saying?

Alina: 7 times 80 is the same as 8 times 70 because they are both like copies of 7 x 8.

Mmmmm….neat! Say more about this “copies” idea….

Alina: They both have 7 x 8 inside of them. And a ten.

Alina, let me try to capture your idea for all of us to make sense of….

7 x (10 x 8) = (7 x 10) x 8

[Depending on the class, the grade level and the goals we have for kids, I sometimes ask kids what this is called. Sometimes the associative property comes up, and when it doesn’t, we just note that.]

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.33.45 AM

Alright, hold onto your hats for this one. How about 7 x .8?

7 x .8 =

Could any of our stories work here? Why or why not? Do we need new stories for thinking about this one?

[Think time, then turn and talk]

What are we thinking now?

Deidre: None of the stories make sense because you can’t have .8 of a mini-shark or a person or a stick of gum. Right?

So, sounds like the stories didn’t carry over for us in a helpful way?

Let me ask a different question: do you have a story if I do this?

7 x $.80

[lots of “Ohhhs” here] What happened? What’s the “ohhing” about?

Najee: You didn’t say anything about money before. But, yeah, this could work.

Is the dollar sign helping anyone else to make up a story? Let’s hear it!

Kristina: Yep, what about 7 packs of gum and you spent $5.60.

Okay, and where’s the $.80 in your story?

Kristina: My bad. The gums are all eighty cents.

What do we think? Would that work?

Justin: Basically you could make a story where you were buying any 80-cent thing and for some reason you needed 7 of them.

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.33.57 AM

That’s pretty cool — “any 80-cent thing.” Okay, so how about this one?

8 x .7

I’m hearing murmurs, which usually means a turn and talk is in order. Thirty seconds to check in with your partner. Go!

Marlene, will you share what you and Mariama were talking about?

Marlene: Uh-huh, you could use money again here.

Say more…

Marlene: But now you have 8 candy bars and they each cost 70 cents.

So, does that help you to find the answer to 8 times .7?

Andy: Basically, yes. because you could just add 70 cents eight times and that would give you $5.60.

Hmmm…is that true? Are you all convinced the 70 cents 8 times is $5.60. Lemme record that so that we can see…

70 + 70 + 70 + 70 + 70 + 70 + 70 + 70

          140 + 140 + 140 + 140

                    560 cents

Rodney: Yeah, I’m good. I mean, I’m convinced. Whatever.

Can you say what convinced you, Rodney?

Rodney: I know that 560 cents is the same as 5 dollars and 60 cents.

560 cents = 500 cents + 60 cents

                    $5 + $.60

Mmm-hmmm. Because?

Rodney: 560 is like — 500 cents is 5 dollars and there’s 60 cents left over.

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.34.15 AM

Okay, so let’s end with this problem:

.8 x .7

[Think time, scanning the room] What happened? Why so many grumpy faces?

Josue: We don’t like this one.

I’m with you. I don’t love it either. Why not?

Josue: There isn’t a good story…..so, like, let’s say you use money. What does 70 cents times 80 cents even mean?

Totally. Well, this is interesting. It sounds like none of us have a great story for this problem — mini-sharks, tables, money, nothing. Be thinking about why that is.

So, let’s pivot away from the story to look at the numbers. Why did I choose these numbers? What do you think is true about the answer, even if you are not totally sure what the answer is? Where is this answer on our place value chart? Let’s turn and talk….

Anyone have an idea about this product? Who can get us started here?

Solomon: Well, we looked the “pink problems” and every single time there was a 7 and an 8 in your problems….and so there was always a 56 in our answer. Sometimes a big 56 and sometimes a smaller 56.

Interesting. Anyone understanding what Solomon is saying — “big 56” and “small 56”? Okay, add on…

Hector: Basically these are versions of 56, where the 56 is just going to the left or to the right depending on how many tens there were. You see? [pointing to the place value chart]

Are you saying that all of these problems has a 56 in it and it’s just a question of where on the place value chart the 56 is?

Hector: Basically, yes.

So, where would this 56 be? How do we use what we know about number to know where to place the 56 on the chart?

Jemma: I personally think of those like fractions, like 7/10 and 8/10 so for me, it’s like 56/100, the regular way, but then you divided by 10 twice.

Okay….and….

Jemma: And that means you move the 56 to the left two times. Divide by ten, divide by ten [gesturing to show the movement of digits to the left].

Let me record this, while someone else chimes in about what Jemma is saying.

Josue: Ooh, so she’s saying that all of these problems are going to be 56, but some are whole numbers — kinda to the left — and others are decimals — kinda to the right.

Josue, here’s a question for all of us, based on what you just said. Is the answer to .7 x 8. here? Or here? And how do we know?

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.34.33 AMI typically end the string by asking students to think about, write, or share (one of the following):

  • something that got clearer today
  • something they noticed that feels important (and why)
  • an idea someone said that felt important (and why)
  • a big looming question they had

In this string my purpose was to:

  • encourage students to use place value relationships to develop intuition about decimals products — to “trust the 56” in our case
  • support students to “look inside” the numbers to build some confidence about the digits — 1.2 x .004 will result in “some kind of 48,” now we just need to reason about where that 48 will be on the place value chart and why
  • get students to decide/name how one problem was related to another
  • help students to see that the decimal point, in fact, doesn’t move, the digits do — and when they move it means that we are multiplying or dividing by a power of ten

A follow-up string might look like this:

4 x 12

4 x 120

40 x 12

40 x 1.2

.4 x 12

.4 x 1.2

.4 x .12

Thanks to Leslie Hefez (MS 88, Brooklyn, NY), Amy Fitter (Parkway Schools, St. Louis, MO) and Mary Abegg (Hazelwood Schools, St Louis, MO) for feedback and lab-site ideas.

Poster from Leslie’s 6th grade class (and an idea for another string)

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