Why You Shouldn't Use the Butterfly Method
The "butterfly method" for comparing, adding, and subtracting fractions - WHY teach this? This is a serious question....why is this being taught?
I don't understand why the "butterfly method" is being used....
I understand that it works and that it can make finding an answer easier for students (for simple fractions). However, I've found definite drawbacks to this method, so I don't like to see students adding and subtracting fractions this way!
Let me explain what I've seen in 6th grade math:
Butterfly Method for Comparing Fractions
In past years, students would come to 6th grade, having learned the butterfly method for comparing fractions.....
This bothered me, because I believe they should understand why things work. So I always made sure to explain why the method worked.
Butterfly Method for Adding and Subtracting Fractions
But this year, I had 6th grade math students tell me they were taught to use the butterfly method to add and subtract fractions (cross multiply and add those products, then multiply the denominators together - shown in figure 2).
But again, they didn't really have a conceptual
understanding of WHY it works.
It seems that many students are being taught "tricks" like this, to make learning fraction operations "easier and fun."
In reality, students aren't learning what it means to add or subtract fractions. (And, really, why wouldn't we want them to see that 6 is the LCD in the problem in figure 2? Why would we want to them to use a larger denominator and then have to do more simplifying to lowest terms??)
Using the Butterfly Method on Larger Fractions:
I recently gave students problem solving that required them to use all fraction operations. Since adding and subtracting is in the 5th grade math curriculum (and I teach 6th), I did just a brief review of adding and subtracting fractions before students worked on these problems - to see what they remembered.
This is when I found out that many of them had been taught the butterfly method, among others.
In the problem solving, students had to add 5/6, 2/3, 7/12, and 7/10.
And here's where the butterfly method totally fails the students who have learned to rely on it, not only because they don't understand why it works, but also because it becomes so cumbersome!
They couldn't use the butterfly method to add 3 or 4 fractions at a time, so they added two fractions at a time. Instead of finding a common denominator for all 4 fractions, they found a new common denominator each time they added on the next fraction (and those denominators sure weren't the LCDs!).
Do Math "Tricks" Really Help
When we as teachers (or parents) find certain tricks that work for simple math problems, we need to look ahead to what our students will experience in future years.
We need to try these methods with more complicated problems, to see if they will still be effective.
We need to think about whether the "tricks" teach them math concepts, or number sense, or number connections....or do they just teach short-cuts?
I have no problem with teaching short-cuts once the conceptual understanding is there. But short-cuts before understanding is detrimental to our students. They are capable of understanding the concepts and we need to have faith that they can "get it" without the tricks.
In the video linked below, Phil Daro stresses the value of teaching mathematics in greater depth and avoiding "clutter" in the curriculum - one of his examples includes the butterfly method. Don't Leave Out the Math
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts or experiences with the "butterfly method"?
Interested in more about fractions?
Check out the Teaching Fraction Operations course.
Need an organizer to help teach fraction operations? Grab this free fraction operations math wheel!
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Hey there! I'm Ellie - here to share math fun, best practices, and engaging, challenging, easy-prep activities ideas!