10 November 2022

Is area more difficult than volume?

I have a tendency to assume that concepts get more difficult as the number of dimensions increases. Length is pretty straightforward, surely (how long is a piece of string?). Area is a bit harder, because we are in 2 dimensions now, and volume is even harder, because that's 3 dimensions. However, I'm not sure that this is right or that it makes much sense to think of building up in this way. After all, a point is zero-dimensional, and that is certainly not a simple thing to get your head around at all!

I think it is much easier to get an intuitive sense of volume than it is of area. From a very young age, children build with blocks and pour sand and water into containers, so they are engaging with 3-dimensional concepts such as volume right from babyhood. We are 3-dimensional beings and live in a 3-dimensional world, so we really ought to feel at home working with a concept like volume. By contrast, I think that area and length may be more inherently difficult concepts conceptually, as we never see these things in their true reality. A 1-dimensional horizontal line segment is represented on paper by a very thin rectangle, because it has to have a little bit of vertical height, otherwise it would be invisible. Indeed, this 'rectangle' is really a very shallow cuboid of ink, sitting on top of the sheet of paper, so it's an approximate cuboid rather than a 'line'. Everything we see that is intended as an approximation to or representation of something 1-d or 2-d is really forced to be actually 3-d just because that's the kind of world we live in.

I was thinking about this recently when considering how to design some lessons on area. What does it mean for two shapes to have the same area? By contrast, equal volumes is fairly easy to grasp. Two hollow shapes have the same capacity (or volume of space/air inside them) if you could fill them up using the same quantity of liquid (Note 1). If they are solid objects, then they have the same volume as each other if they displace the same quantity of a liquid that they are submerged within. For children who have played with floating and sinking objects in the bath, this is familiar territory. You can easily be sure whether two objects have the same volume or whether one has greater volume than the other, and which way round it is. It might not be easy to estimate volumes at a glance in practice - I am always surprised that an ordinary drinks can contains 330 cm$^3$ (it never looks big enough to contain that many centimetre cubes) - but it's clear what 'greater volume' means and how we could, in principle, find out (Note 2).

This is all much harder with area. Two shapes have the same area if you can cut up one of them and fit the pieces exactly inside the other one, with no gaps and no overlaps. This is not easy at all. What if the shapes have awkward edges? Can a disc of radius $1$ be 'cut up and fitted exactly inside' a square with side length $\sqrt{\pi}$? You would have to make infinitely many cuts to do it: can you be sure that there would definitely be no tiny gaps or overlaps? To a young child, there is nothing exceptional about a circle - they see circles all the time - so this should surely not be a 'hard' example to think about. Similarly, we expect children to accept things like the fact that shearing a rectangle parallel to one of its sides doesn't change the area. Maybe we push over a stack of paper to illustrate this. But is it really so clear that the area is definitely not changing?

I was thinking about lessons I've seen in which the teacher aimed for more intuitive understandings of area. It is normal to choose a small square 'unit' and try to cover a given shape with a finite number of these units. So children might place small plastic squares over a drawing of a shape to see how many are needed to cover it completely without any gaps. Sometimes the answer is an integer (e.g., for a carefully-chosen rectangle), or it might be a non-integer, but still exact, if half-squares, say, can be carefully totalled. Sometimes, it may involve estimation (e.g., tracing a hand or foot onto squared paper and approximating the total surface area). Occasionally units other than a square are used, and so long as the units tessellate we can often still tile many shapes with them. But I think all of this is much harder than pouring liquids into and out of various vessels.

What about more informal approaches to area? I saw a lesson in which area was informally understood as 'the amount of ink you need to colour in the shape', whereas perimeter was 'the amount of ink you need to draw around the edge of the shape'. Students had felt-tip pens and were illustrating area and perimeter of some shapes by colouring them in (Note 3). Of course, there is a lot of imprecision here, but perhaps the act of colouring in helps to reinforce the nature of the concept we are focused on. Time can be brought in as a proxy for area, so the shape with larger area is the one that takes longer to colour in (colouring races to determine which shape has greater area). There are some assumptions here about things like the same pen being used, students with equal 'colouring speed', and so on. And, of course, features of the shape that might mean that some shapes of area 10 cm$^2$, say, are quicker to colour than others - compare these two, for example:

Other possibilities for building helpful intuitions include things like cutting out shapes in thick card (with uniform thickness) and weighing them against each other to determine which has larger area. Or cutting them out of pastry and baking them and seeing which weighs more or takes longer to eat. All of this kind of work is a long way from the more common emphasis on quickly getting to the calculations. If you ask a child, "What is area?" they may be quite likely to say, "Base times height". Admittedly, "What is area?" is a hard question for anyone to answer. But stating a formula for calculating the area of one specific type of shape (i.e., a parallelogram) is not the same as having a good fundamental sense of what area is all about.

Questions to reflect on

1. Do you agree that area is more difficult than volume? If not, why not?

2. How important do you think it is to develop an intuitive understanding of concepts like area?

3. Would you use any of the approaches mentioned here? Why / why not?


1. We'll assume throughout that the shapes are made of something like plastic, which doesn't absorb the liquid or get deformed by it! There are all kinds of other physical assumptions in play, such as the assumed incompressibility of liquids, and so on.

2. For reflections on some of the ambiguities around volume and surface area, see Foster (2011).

3. Colouring in is not always the most educational of activities in school, but in this case it seemed that it might be.


Foster, C. (2011). Productive ambiguity in the learning of mathematics. For the Learning of Mathematics, 31(2), 3–7. https://www.foster77.co.uk/Foster,%20For%20The%20Learning%20of%20Mathematics,%20Productive%20Ambiguity%20in%20the%20Learning%20of%20Mathematics.pdf

1 comment:

  1. Christine LenghausSunday, 11 December, 2022

    I have used the scenario of two caves (used masking tape to show on the carpet as upside down u) - one wide/short the other narrow/tall and two different paper "leaves" to measure (I cut a gum tree leaf and maple leaf). The sts named the cavemen and we set about to measure who had the biggest cave. Using thin gum leaf to measure across wide entrance and compare to maple leaf for narrow height. Not good way to compare. We had a discussion on what would be a good and fair shape to measure with. Squares are good!💥


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