How do we teach students about the equal sign in math?

Professor
Tim Whiteford brought this up in a meeting recently. Says Tim:
“Traditionally we have used language like ‘three plus four makes seven’
or ‘three and four are seven’. We now know that both these forms of
language actually develop in children a misconception about what is
happening in this piece of procedural knowledge. Children tend to think
that the equals sign makes things happen.” (see Tim’s full blog post on
the equal sign)

I
remember having this misconception as a child, and children in the U.S.
continue to struggle with it today. I was looking at the 3rd grade
NECAP released items last year and noticed lots of students got this
question wrong: 1+4+?=6+14. (Many students incorrectly chose 1, which
makes sense because 1+4+1=6.)

Researchers
at Texas A&M University found that 70% of U.S. middle
school students lack understanding about the equal sign. Students in
other countries like Korea and China do not have the same
misconceptions. When students begin algebra in middle school,
understanding the equal sign is critical for their success. (full article here)

On
the bright side, this seems like a relatively easy thing to fix. I
visited a second grade class the other day and watched the students
excitedly working with a number balance scale.
Their teacher used this tool to help them develop their concept of
equality as a relationship, as opposed to an operation. If you don’t
have a number balance scale, here is a very nice virtual pan balance scale from NCTM Illuminations, and a virtual number balance scale.

We can also mix up the way we write equations. I could decide to write 7=9-2 instead of 9-2=7.

At
what age do students need to learn the correct meaning of the equal
sign? Why wait? This is a Mathematics Common
Core State Standard for first grade: 1.OA.7.
Understand the meaning of the equal sign, and determine if equations
involving addition and subtraction are true or false. For example, which
of the following equations are true and which are false? 6 = 6, 7 = 8 –
1, 5 + 2 = 2 + 5, 4 + 1 = 5 + 2.

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