The equal sign

It has been a long, busy semester for me in my community college work. Many interesting and productive projects, lots of interesting and challenging teaching problems.

But I am tired. Wiped out and exhausted.

So I devised a plan the other evening when Tabitha needed to finish her first-grade math homework. I would lie on the daybed on the porch with my eyes closed while she worked at the adjacent table. I could answer any questions she might have without opening my eyes. (Seriously, parents—you may mock me, but can you honestly say you haven’t tried something similar?)

This plan worked beautifully for about five minutes.

She was working through some addition facts when it occurred to me that I had never asked her one of my favorite math questions. So I wrote the following in my notebook.

Eight plus four equals box plus five

Me: What goes in the box?

Tabitha (7 years old): (reading aloud in a mumble to herself) Eight plus four is…

Hey! This doesn’t make any sense!

Me: Why not?

T: 8 plus 4 is something, then plus 5?

Me: What does the equal sign mean?

T: Is. Like 2 plus 2 is 4.

Me: What about this? Would it make sense to write 2 plus 2 equals 3 plus 1?

T: No!

I let it go and we move on with our evening.

Later on, though, after putting on jammies but before toothbrushing, I follow up.

Me: Tabitha, I want to ask you a follow up math question.

T: OK.

Me: Does it make sense to say 2 plus 2 is the same as 3 plus 1?

T: Yes! Of course! Easy!

Me: Can I let you in on a little secret?

T: A secret secret? Or not really a secret?

Me: Not really a secret. But something you might not know.

T: [rolls eyes] OK.

Me: The equal sign means “is the same as”.

T: Of course! I know that!

Me: But that means it would be OK to say that 2 plus 2 equals 3 plus 1.

T: Oh.

So what do we learn?

This is kind of a big deal.

We train children to think that the equal sign means and now write the answer. Arithmetic worksheets reinforce this idea. Calculators do too. (What button do you press to perform a computation on a typical calculator? The equal sign!)

But doing algebra requires that we understand the equal sign to mean is the same as or has the same value as.

Tabitha is in first grade, though, so she has lots of time to learn the correct meaning, right?

Sadly, older students in U.S. schools do worse on the task I gave Tabitha than younger ones do.

The good news is this: If we are aware that children may develop the wrong idea about the equal sign, it is easy to help them to get it right.

You can follow Tabitha’s and my adventures in equality in the coming weeks.

Starting the conversation

If you have a school-aged child of any age, pose that task above. No judgment. No hints. Report your results below. It’ll be fun!


Coincidentally, a fourth-grade teacher wrote up his class’s explorations in equality today. If you’re interested in what this can look like in school (easily adaptable for homeschool), head on over.