Unit Conversions

The topic was unit conversions. I started by writing “1m = ? cm” on the board, and asked them as a class how many centimeters there were in a meter. As a group, they all replied “0.01”. I realized that what was probably going on was that either my counterpart or their past Liberian teachers had written the conversion the opposite direction in their lessons: “1 cm = .01m”

But no matter, I would see if I could draw the mistake to their attention. I asked which was bigger – a meter or a centimeter. I got a resounding “meter!”. I told them to look carefully at the board and I asked them again “How many centimeters are in one meter“, while pointing to the quantities on the board. Still, I got a confident “0.01”.

I drew an approximate meter long line on the board, and an approximate centimeter length on the board, and had them identify which was which. They did. I said, “you are telling that 0.01 centimeters is one meter. How do I draw 0.01 centimeters? Is that smaller or bigger than 1 centimeter?”. There was some disagreement, but we finally agreed it was smaller. We finally drew a line representing 0.01cm on the board.

And so I asked the class, “Is 0.01 centimeters equal to 1 meter?!”, while pointing to the corresponding lines. A resounding “No!”.  “Do we need lots of centimeters, to make the same length as 1 meter?” “Yes!” “How many do we need?” A couple students knew it was 100, and shared with the class. I affirmed their answer.

Empowered by our new discovery, I tried to bring it home: “Now then, how many centimeters are in one meter?” and pointed to my original question on the board. This time, I heard some 100’s mixed with the 0.01’s. Progress.

Fast forward another 10 minutes and I’m drilling the class:

“How many centimeters in a meter?!” “100!”
“How many meters in a centimeter?!” “0.01!”
“How many centimeters in a meter?!” “100!”
“How many meters in a centimeter?!” “0.01!”
“How many meters in a centimeter?!” [Mixed]

By the end, I think I got about 95% of the class on the same page. (I was hearing incorrect answers from at least one student, even after the whole class period).

My 12th grade class had very similar processing weaknesses. I think these sort of weaknesses are related to a lack of impulse control. This is best illustrated in a clapping game I played with my 12th grade students. Many were unable to let me finish my clapping pattern before they would jump in.


They were really trying, too.

Before you laugh at these weaknesses, you really need to take their difficult histories and lack of educational opportunities into account. Stress and malnutrition can cause huge problems in a child’s mental development. Studies show that even if a child’s mother is exposed to stress while pregnant with that child, that kid is significantly more likely to have problems surrounding impulse control and addiction later in life. All my students were born in the thick of a brutal civil war that destroyed all the infastructure in the country, killed teachers, and suspended the education system. I’d say they’re doing pretty good, considering.

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One Response to Unit Conversions

  1. Pingback: Model School | Kyle in Liberia

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