Relevant Decimals Lesson

This is a lesson that I tried with a 5th grade class to give a context to decimal addition and subtraction. Most of the math problems I’ve found involving decimal computation seem “artificial.” They have a “real world” connection, but the connections are irrelevant to most 5th graders. In order to make the connections more relevant (as Dan Meyer posted in a recent blog: students want to solve it) I came up with a context for a problem that had the math content embedded, but also involved the students in the problem itself. Credit for this lesson needs to go to a 3-5 EBD class at my school. The students in this class about 3 yrs ago, loved to make tops out of connecting cubes. They did this because they were told that they couldn’t bring in any toys to class (Bey Blade was the hot toy at the time). Since they couldn’t bring in these spinning, battle tops, they created their own with connecting cubes.

The first time I witnessed these students spinning their tops, the big question they wanted to know, was whose top spun the longest. I filed the idea away until about a week ago when some 5th grade teachers at my school asked for some help with decimals. The following is the lesson I used – thanks to this class of students. It’s written as it was done. I know what I’d change when I do it again. Please take a look. Use it if you like. I’d love to hear about your results and how you change it to make it better!


5.NBT.1 Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left.

5.NBT.3 Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.

a. Read and write decimals to thousandths using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form, e.g., 347.392 = 3 × 100 + 4 × 10 + 7 × 1 + 3 × (1/10) + 9 × (1/100) + 2 × (1/1000).

b. Compare two decimals to thousandths based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.

5.NBT.7 Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used.


Connecting cubes

Decimats, or Base-ten manipulatives for modeling

Stopwatches (we used an online stopwatch that measured to thousandths of a second)


Give students a copy of the decimat and ask what decimals might be represented. Follow up with these possible questions: What might hundredths or thousandths look like? How could you use this to model 0.013? 0.13? Share your thoughts with your partner/team?

Work Session:

The task is to design a spinning top, using connecting cubes, that will spin for as long as possible. Your group may want to design 2 or 3 tops, then choose the best from those designs. Once a design is chosen, students will spin their top and time how long it spins using a stopwatch. Each group will do this 4 times. Students should cross out the lowest time. Students will then use models and equations to show the total time for the top three spins. Students will show, on an empty number line, where the total time for their three spins lies. Students must justify their placement of this number on a number line.

Here is a sample top (thanks for asking for this Ivy!)



Students present their tops and their data, then compare their results.

Possible discussion questions:

Whose top spun the longest?

How do you know?

How much longer did the longest spinning top spin than the second longest spinning top?

Show your thinking using a model.

How many of you would change your design to make it spin longer?

How would you change it?

Decimat model 2

Students used models to explain their thinking to each other and construct viable arguments.

Students used models to explain their thinking to each other and construct viable arguments.

Lesson Opening Takes Over


5th grade-Decimal understanding and comparing.

I went into the class to model a lesson where students use

models to understand and compare decimals. My opening

was an empty number line with 11 hash marks – zero on the

far left and 1 on the far right.

I asked students if they knew what any of the hash marks on

the number line should be labeled. Only a few students raised

their hands, so I asked the class to talk about  this at their

tables for a minute.

After a quick discussion, a boy was chosen to come to  the front.

I asked him to point to the hash mark on the number line that

he thought he knew the label for. He pointed to the  middle line.

What I would’ve done 15 years ago, is ask him what it should be

labeled and move on with the lesson.  Instead, I asked him to

whisper what the label for the hash mark should be.

I thanked him and asked all of the groups to focus on the middle

hash mark on the empty number line and see if they could agree

on what it should be labeled.

This teaching strategy never ceases to amaze me – and neither do the

students.  The conversations were incredible.  Just allowing students

to share their ideas with each other and try to make sense of numbers

(fractions and decimals) on a number line.

In the beginning of their discussions, most students thought 1/5 (the

same thing the boy whispered in my ear). Their reasoning was that

there were 11 hash marks and the middle one was the fifth one over.

It made “perfect incorrect sense.”  But I learned what misconceptions

were prevalent in the class.

As I talked with each group, students began to question their own

reasoning.  One group, while defending the idea of 1/5 said, “Yeah,

the fifth one over is in the middle and . . . well, it is in the middle, so

it could be 1/2.” This was my time to ask, “Can it be both 1/5 and

1/2? You have 90 seconds to discuss this and I’ll be right back.”

By the time I got back, they had decided it had to be 1/2, because

they “knew” that 1/2 and 1/5 weren’t the same.

When we came back as a whole group, many of the students had

shared that they had thought it was 1/5 at first, but many changed

their minds because of the idea of the hash mark being in the middle.

Many changed their minds to 1/2, but not all.  Some had decided that

since our standard was about decimals, the hash mark should be

labeled 5/10.  The next discussion lead to proving that 1/2 = 5/10.

Once students were comfortable with the decision that 1/2 = 5/10, I

asked them to label the hash mark to the left of 5/10.  The discussion

was quick and efficient.  They knew it was 4/10 because there were

ten “sections” on the number line (no longer 11 lines), and that hash

mark was the end of the 4th of the 10 sections.  They were thinking of

the number line as an equally divided line (fractions).

Finally, the students were asked to draw a number line in their journals,

like the one at the front of the room, and label all of the hash marks

with fraction and decimal notation.

It’s important to note that this opening to the lesson (that ended up

becoming the whole lesson) would not have been possible if the teacher

hadn’t developed group norms with the students at the beginning of

the year.  This class knows, after 9 weeks, how to talk to each other,

discuss their thinking, and work together toward a common goal.