PHILADELPHIA -- A few years ago, Dennis DeTurck, an award-winning professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, stood at an outdoor podium on campus and proclaimed, "Down with fractions!"
"Fractions have had their day, being useful for by-hand calculation," DeTurck said as part of a 60-second lecture series. "But in this digital age, they're as obsolete as Roman numerals are."
The speech started a firestorm, particularly after the university posted it online.
"There were blogs and rants, and there were some critical e-mails," said DeTurck, who is now dean of the college of arts and sciences at Penn. "They'd always boil down to: 'What would we do in cooking and carpentry?' "
DeTurck is stirring the pot again, this time in a book scheduled to be published this year. Not only does he favor the teaching of decimals over fractions to elementary school students, he's also taking on long division, the calculation of square roots and by-hand multiplication of long numbers.
"Mathematicians are always questioning the axioms. Everybody knows that questioning those often results in the most substantial gains in terms of progress," he says.
Questioning the wisdom of teaching fractions to young students doesn't compute with people such as George Andrews, a professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania State University and president-elect of the American Mathematical Society. "All of this is absurd," Andrews said. "No wonder mathematical achievements in the country are so abysmal.
"Arithmetic is the basic skill. If children do not know arithmetic, they can't go on to algebra, which leads to calculus. From there you go on to other things," Andrews said. "It's fine to talk about it, but this is not a good pedagogy."
Others see value in both fractions and decimals. To Janine Remillard, associate professor of education at Penn, the decimal system is "incredibly powerful." And fractions can be a powerful steppingstone to understanding decimals, she says.
"Fractions, if taught well — and that's a huge caveat — can actually help kids understand the value of the size of the pieces," Remillard says.
DeTurck does not want to abolish the teaching of fractions and long division altogether. He believes fractions are important for high-level mathematics and scientific research. But it could be that the study of fractions should be delayed until it can be understood, perhaps after a student learns calculus, he said. Long division has its uses, too, but maybe it doesn't need to be taught as intensely.
Penn State mathematician Andrews says he believes DeTurck's ideas will "unfortunately" gain traction because of the misguided belief that math education can somehow be made easy:
"Math is hard. The idea that somehow we're going to make math just fun is just a dream."
Milford reports for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.