teachers should know. Many of these ideas are treated in more detail in textbooks intended for prospective elementary school teachers.

A major theme of the chapter is that numbers are ideas—abstractions that apply to a broad range of real and imagined situations. Operations on numbers, such as addition and multiplication, are also abstractions. Yet in order to communicate about numbers and operations, people need representations—something physical, spoken, or written. And in order to carry out any of these operations, they need algorithms: step-by-step procedures for computation. The chapter closes with a discussion of the relationship between number and other important mathematical domains such as algebra, geometry, and probability.

Number Systems

At first, school arithmetic is mostly concerned with the whole numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, and so on.1 The child’s focus is on counting and on calculating— adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Later, other numbers are introduced: negative numbers and rational numbers (fractions and mixed numbers, including finite decimals). Children expend considerable effort learning to calculate with these less intuitive kinds of numbers. Another theme in school mathematics is measurement, which forms a bridge between number and geometry.

Mathematicians like to take a bird’s-eye view of the process of developing an understanding of number. Rather than take numbers a pair at a time and worry in detail about the mechanics of adding them or multiplying them, they like to think about whole classes of numbers at once and about the properties of addition (or of multiplication) as a way of combining pairs of numbers in the class. This view leads to the idea of a number system. A number system is a collection of numbers, together with some operations (which, for purposes of this discussion, will always be addition and multiplication), that combine pairs of numbers in the collection to make other numbers in the same collection. The main number systems of arithmetic are (a) the whole numbers, (b) the integers (i.e., the positive whole numbers, their negative counterparts, and zero), and (c) the rational numbers—positive and negative ratios of whole numbers, except for those ratios of a whole number and zero.

Thinking in terms of number systems helps one clarify the basic ideas involved in arithmetic. This approach was an important mathematical discovery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some ideas of arithmetic are fairly subtle and cause problems for students, so it is useful to have a viewpoint from which the connections between ideas can be surveyed.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement