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Adding + It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics
and disadvantages. Therefore, it is important to think about which algorithms are taught and the reasons for teaching them.
Learning to use algorithms for computation with multidigit numbers is an important part of developing proficiency with numbers. Algorithms are procedures that can be executed in the same way to solve a variety of problems arising from different situations and involving different numbers. This feature has three important implications. First, it means that algorithms are useful tools—different procedures do not need to be invented for each problem. Second, algorithms illustrate a significant feature of mathematics: The structure of problems can be abstracted from their immediate context and compared to see whether different-looking problems can be solved in similar ways. Finally, the process of developing fluency with arithmetic algorithms in elementary school can contribute to progress in developing the other strands of proficiency if time is spent examining why algorithms work and comparing their advantages and disadvantages. Such analyses can boost conceptual understanding by revealing much about the structure of the number system itself and can facilitate understanding of place-value representations.
Research findings about learning algorithms for whole numbers can be summarized with seven important observations. First, the linkages among the strands of mathematical proficiency that are possible when children develop proficiency with single-digit arithmetic can be continued with multidigit arithmetic. For example, there can be a close connection between understanding and fluency. Conceptual knowledge that comes with understanding is important for the development of procedural fluency, while fluent procedural knowledge supports the development of further understanding and learning. When students fail to grasp the concepts that underlie procedures or cannot connect the concepts to the procedures, they frequently generate flawed procedures that result in systematic patterns of errors.47 These so-called buggy algorithms are signs that the strands are not well connected.48 When the initial computational procedures that students use to solve multidigit problems reflect their understanding of numbers, understanding and fluency develop together.
A second observation is that understanding and fluency are related. For multidigit addition and subtraction, given conventional instruction that emphasizes practicing procedures, a substantial percentage of children gain understanding of multidigit concepts before using a correct procedure, but another substantial minority do the opposite.49 In contrast, instructional programs that emphasize understanding algorithms before using them have been shown to lead to increases in both conceptual and procedural knowledge.50