I am blessed to work with dedicated teachers who care deeply for their students and are working hard to understand the conceptual shifts CCSS brings to the table in math. One such teacher emailed me this weekend distraught, not knowing how to respond to a frustrated parent. The premise was the mother did not understand why her third grader was being asked to learn the distributive property, when she herself hadn’t learned it until Algebra I.
The arithmetic properties (commutative, associative, identities, etc.) were not created for Algebra I, though many of us didn’t learn them until then. I remember thinking that a bunch of old guys must have made them up for the sheer joy of torturing me into memorizing random stuff. No, the properties are the rules that give us the freedom to simplify math problems to make them easier to calculate while keeping the value the same.
An example. Which would be easier to solve in your head, 15 + 29 then add 5 OR 15 + 5 then add 29? The second, because we can make tens (15+5 = 20) and easily add 29 to it rather than have to “carry the 1” on the first example. This illustrates the commutative property: when adding or multiplying, I can perform that operation with any numbers in the problem first. I can switch the numbers around to make the problem easier to add (or multiply).
These properties should be celebrated as early as Kindergarten. Students do not necessarily need to know the names, but should realize through exploration that they exist and help them find their values.
Back to the distributive property. We old-timers saw it used like this: 6(5x + 2) = 30x + 12. This is not what we are asking third graders to do! Since the CCSSM standards require single digit multiplication fluency in third grade (1×1 through 9×9), it is natural to teach the distributive property at this level. This property allows me to break up one of my bigger numbers into parts. I can then multiply those smaller parts by the other factor to make it easier.
I know 6 x 5 = 30. (This is illustrated in yellow.)
I know 6 x 2 = 12 (This is illustrated in red.)
So 6 x (5 + 2) = 30 + 12 = 42.
You may also see the distributive property used as a “number bond”. This is when it is broken up into parts, either using boxes or circles to show the parts. In this case, 7 is broken up into two parts: 5 and 2.
Utilizing the distributive property is an amazing strategy for students who struggle with memorization! They can use the distributive property to break up larger values they don’t know the multiplication facts for, until they have time to build fluency. More important, it teaches kids the value of knowing that math isn’t just memorization. There are structures and patterns that I can use. If I know the rules that govern those patterns (the properties), I can change the structure to find the value in an easier way.