Reducing Fractions is like Folding Clothes

Have you ever thought of fractions while doing laundry? There are some interesting (and enlightening) similarities!I was cramming my running clothes into my backpack this morning and thought, “I probably should fold those.”

And then I thought, “Why do I need to fold my clothes before I cram them in my backpack?”

After all, folding is a grownup thing.

Does it save space to fold?

Does it save space to fold? Well, the physicist in me (which is very very tiny) would say no. The matter in the shirt is the same whether it’s folded or not.

Sometimes you don’t want your clothes folded. Think of those last few things you forgot to pack in your luggage. It’s jam packed but you gotta have that one pair of spanks. Or the loose t-shirt to sleep in.

You don’t fold them. You unfold and squish them into the corners. Because in this context, unfolded is best.

Folding is neater, though. So folding your shirts to put in your dresser does give the added benefit of looking nicer. You can see what you have more easily, too.

But I don’t need my sweaty running clothes to look nice. And I don’t need to see them either.

But perhaps folding will give another benefit…

Will folded running clothes dry better than squished ones?

I’m pretty sure they won’t. In fact, I think that wadded wet clothes might be better than folded wet clothes. More variance in the surface area will cause more frequent pockets of drying.

(Although after writing that, I’m not sure it makes any sense. #PhysicsIdiot)

Regardless, they’re in there for 8 hours (until I change into them to run home). So who cares how wet they stay?

What’s this got to do with fractions?

Your clothes aren’t wrong, bad or unwearable if you don’t fold them. When it’s time to use them, you might need to iron them. Or dry them.

Or you can use them wrinkled or wet.

Just like you might need to reduce or “enlarge” your fraction, depending on what you intend to do with it next. Like when we find a common denominator. We cleverly expand to a form that’s handy.

Students would say, “You’re supposed to reduce.” Or they would tell me that their last teacher required it: “It’s wrong if it’s not reduced.”

No one told them that reducing fractions is merely a skill to be used when you need it. Like folding clothes.

Should we keep teaching automatic reduction?


You can pass out a worksheet of fractions to be reduced. Just as you can sit with a basket of laundry to be folded.

But before you tell students to mindlessly reduce all fractions, consider a different lesson. Teach them to recognize when reduced fractions would be more helpful.

And when it’s not helpful to reduce, they can leave them as they are.

What do you think?

Are you conditioned to require reduced fractions? Can you teach this flexibility?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

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2 Responses to Reducing Fractions is like Folding Clothes

  1. I think people say they like math because it is black and white, but that is only because many want things to be that easy, even when they are not. We need to embrace the ambiguous, the nuanced, the deeper meaning. Kids should know that there are laws, conventions, philosophies, and plain old opinions that govern mathematics. Adults should know this even better. Usefulness of a skill is an increasingly important characteristic, and the discussion therefore is necessary!! Thanks for the analogy that helps is explore these ideas.

    • Val,

      My brother would say, “There are no should‘s.” Would be great if adults would know it at all. #sigh

      Thanks for dropping in to share your thoughts!

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