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Adding + It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics
further. In particular, the place-value numeration system used for arithmetic implicitly incorporates some of the basic concepts of algebra, and the algorithms of arithmetic rely heavily on the “laws of algebra.” Nevertheless, for many students, learning algebra is an entirely different experience from learning arithmetic, and they find the transition difficult.
The difficulties associated with the transition from the activities typically associated with school arithmetic to those typically associated with school algebra have been extensively studied.1 In this chapter, we review in some detail the research that examines these difficulties and describe new lines of research and development on ways that concepts and symbol use in elementary school mathematics can be made to support the development of algebraic reasoning. These recent efforts have been prompted in part by the difficulties exposed by prior research and in part by widespread dissatisfaction with student learning of mathematics in secondary school and beyond. The efforts attempt to avoid the difficulties many students now experience and to lay the foundation for a deeper set of mathematical experiences in secondary school. Before reviewing the research, we first describe and illustrate the main activities of school algebra.
Previous chapters have shown how the five strands of conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition are interwoven in achieving mathematical proficiency with number and its operations. These components of proficiency are equally important and similarly entwined in successful approaches to school algebra.
The Main Activities of Algebra
What is school algebra? Various authors have given different definitions, including, with “tongue in cheek, the study of the 24th letter of the alphabet [x].”2 To understand more fully the connections between elementary school mathematics and algebra, it is useful to distinguish two aspects of algebra that underlie all others: (a) algebra as a systematic way of expressing generality and abstraction, including algebra as generalized arithmetic; and (b) algebra as syntactically guided transformations of symbols.3 These two main aspects of algebra have led to various activities in school algebra, including representational activities, transformational (rule-based) activities, and generalizing and justifying activities.4
The representational activities of algebra involve translating verbal information into symbolic expressions and equations that often, but not always, involve functions. Typical examples include generating (a) equations that represent quantitative problem situations in which one or more of the quan-