Sunday, October 21, 2012

Versatile Pattern Blocks

Pattern blocks have many uses and ours are as quiet as a mouse! Use them to explore transformations, discover symmetry, compose and decompose shapes, investigate fractions, introduce algebraic thinking, create patterns, and engage students in authentic problem solving. These colorful shapes can provide learning opportunities for students throughout elementary and middle school.

One of my favorite ways to use pattern blocks is to enhance my students' conceptual understanding of fractions. The various shapes enable my students to move beyond traditional models for fractions, pizza pie circles and candy bar rectangles, to more elaborate structures. This leads to greater flexibility in my students' ability to visualize fractions which improves their problem solving skills. We begin by defining a particular combination of shapes as one whole. From there, we challenge students to build various fractions of the whole such as 1/3 or 1/4. When they are comfortable and familiar with these tasks, we proceed to the next level. What does it mean to build a shape that is 4/3 or 5/4 the size of the original whole? How about 5/3 or 7/4? Ultimately, we explore fraction algorithms visually. What does 4 ÷ 3/4 look like with pattern blocks? What does such an expression mean? When might we need to divide by fractional numbers in the real world? Modeling algorithms in this way creates a deeper understanding of division with non-whole numbers.