The last 2 weeks of my life has been monopolised by one question, a question for which I am still not confident in any answer, a question asked by my 5 year old daughter who just started school this year. One day just after I had got home from work and I was beginning to make dinner she asked me "Daddy, how do you count to half?". The question immediately intrigued me, because as a maths teacher I felt I should be able to answer that question confidently, after all it is just about counting, but I found my self unsure of how to answer her. I really wasn't sure if the answer was " you can't count to half, one is the first counting number" or whether to tell her "you can count to half by counting by numbers smaller than one", I just wasn't sure if a number less than one could be denoted as a count. So I didn't answer her at that time, I told her what a great question it was, it was such a good question that she was able to trick me, even though I teach maths. But I promised her that I would also speak to some other maths teachers to see what they thought about the question.
I went to school the next day and asked every maths teacher at my school the same question, and they all gave me the same look, kinda puzzled, but also very intrigued, it was clear that, like me, they had never thought about counting by anything less than 1's. Most of them were willing to give an answer, but they did not give the same answer, and when I spoke to them about the other thinking I had on the question they also became unsure and reconsidered their initial position. I also asked a lot of primary colleagues in different schools as I figured that they ultimately had the responsibility around teaching counting so I felt they would have a better understanding than me. But again, they could see both sides of it,. I went to my resources on how concepts develop and could not find anything there, I even went to Google and could not find the answer anywhere on there. When I told my daughter all of this she was really amused that all of these teachers could not answer it and even Google and Siri couldn't answer it. So as a final ditch effort I took to twitter and tried to tap into the collective knowledge of the MTBOS, a global tribe of mathematics teachers.
But again I had no luck, lots were intrigued by the question, and lots told me how I could talk to my daughter about it, but that is not what I was after, I know how to talk to her about these things, I wanted to know whether they felt that half was a number you could count to.
The discussions have continued for quite a while now, and are still going, the more I think about it the more I think i have settled on an answer, but as one of the teachers I have been working on this closely with put it "even if 90% of the people I talked to disagreed with my position, this is one question where I don't think I would be convinced by that enough to change my mind".
I still feel like this question only has one answer, I feel that if I was asked to count what was on the plate and asked 100 other people then we should all get the same answer, but that has just not been my experience with this one innocent question from my daughter. I think if she asked most people, it would be so easy for them to give an answer without giving the answer much thought, they wouldn't even think twice about the complexity of the question, so I am really glad she asked me first. It made it really clear to me about about how closely we need to listen to these questions, even from learners who are just embarking on this learning journey. What was clear from this question was that she had been thinking a lot about counting and also the number half, she had figured out that half was a number, but had never used it in counting. She had identified what was a gap in the concept for her, but interestingly enough it also made me discover that it was a conceptual gap for me to as I had never considered it.
Senior Leader of Pedagogical Innovation and Mathematics Coordinator in Regional South Australia.
Opinions in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.