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Key points:

  • That  children struggle to make the move from being in a situation where “not knowing answers (to arithmetic calculations) is treated negatively, and then suddenly introduced to algebra in which not knowing is treated positively as an opportunity to use symbols, as a way of working with not knowing.”
  • “Whenever a learner solves a problem, there is available the question ‘What is the method that was used?’, which in intimately tied up with the question ‘What can be changed about the problem and still the same technique or method will work?’ or ‘What is the class of problems which can be solved similarly?’ S. Brown and M. Walter (1981) suggest asking ‘What if … something changed?’ or ‘What if not…?’ Watson and Mason advocate explicitly asking learners to consider what dimensions of possible variation and corresponding ranges of permissible change they are aware of (Mason & Johnston-Wilder, 2004; Watson & Mason, 2004) as stimulus to becoming aware of, and even expressing features of, the general class of problem of which the ones considered are representative.”
  • Awareness of and Expressing Generality: “Picture-pattern sequences (Mason, 1988b; Mason, Graham, Pimm & Gowat, 1983; South Notts, n.d.) provide just one context for generalizing.” Learners are shown a sequence of pictures, and then specify a method describing how the pattern is growing through each term in the sequence, extrapolating these ideas to fit further terms in the sequence
  • “Getting learners to make use of their powers is not simply an approach to algebra or even approach to mathematics. It is mathematics.”

Main Reference:

  • Mason, J. (2008) ‘Making Use Of Children’s Powers To Produce Algebraic Thinking’ in Kaput, J., Carraher, D. and Blanton, M. (eds.) Algebra In The Early Grades. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 57-94


  • Brown, S. and Walter, M. (1982) The art of problem posing. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute Press.
  • Mason, J. (1988b) Expressing generality [project update]. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  • Mason, J. and Johnston-Wilder, S. (2004). Designing and using mathematical tasks. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  • Mason, J., Graham, A., Pimm, D. and Gowar, N. (1985). Routes to, roots of algebra. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  • South Notts Project. (n.d.) Material for secondary mathematics. Nottingham: Shell Centre, University Of Nottingham.
  • Watson, A. and Mason, J. (2004) Mathematics as a constructive activity: The role of learner-generated examples. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Key points:

  • “Recent research on the status of student knowledge based in the traditional arithmetic-then-algebra regime has pointed to specific obstacles to algebra learning that computational arithmetic creates for the learning of algebra. For example, limited approaches to equality and the “=” sign in arithmetic as separator of procedure from result (Kieran, 1992) and now known to interfere with later learning in algebra (Fujii, 2003; MacGregor & Stacey, 1997).”
  • The majority of the chapter discusses the uses of algebra and tries to define it – “algebra needs to be described both through a snapshot of its structure and function in mathematics today and in mathematically mature individuals, and through a dynamic picture of its evolution historically and developmentally.” “Most attempts to describe algebra historically…tend to be oriented toward progress in solving equations, where the origin of the equations might be the problem situations or simply assertions about numbers or measurement quantities, often surprisingly similar across millennia (e.g., Katz, 1995).”
  • The article continues to describe two core aspects of algebra – generalisation and “syntactically guided action on symbols within organized systems of symbols” (which I take to mean reasoning). When these two core  aspects are introduced to children is another area of discussion – with practitioners giving reasonable arguments for each aspect to be given favour.
  • Movement from arithmetic to algebra depend on the understanding of the “=” sign. Children must realise that sign shows equivalence: 18 plus 3 is the same as 3 plus 18 just as a plus b is the same as b plus a.

Main Reference:

  • Kaput, J. (2008) ‘What Is Algebra? What Is Algebraic Reasoning?’ in Kaput, J., Carraher, D. and Blanton, M. (eds.) Algebra In The Early Grades. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 5-18


  • Fujii, T., (2003) ‘Probing students’ understanding of variables through cognitive conflict problems: Is he concept of a variable so difficult for students to understand?’ in Pateman, N., Dougherty, B. and Zilliox, J. (eds.) Proceedings of the 27th Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Vol. 1, pp. 49-66. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
  • Katz, V. (1995) ‘The development of algebra and algebra education’ in Lacampagne, C., Blair, W. and Kaput, J. (eds) The algebra initiative colloquium, Vol. 1, pp. 15-32. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  • Kieran, C. (1992) ‘The Learning and teaching of school algebra’ in Grouws, D. (ed) Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning, pp. 390-419. New York: Macmillan.
  • MacGregor, M., and Stacey, K. (1997) ‘Students’ understanding of algebraic notation: 11-15′ Educational Studies in Mathematics, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 1-19.

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“This paper describes a lesson taught to Judy’s Y2 class in a rural Hertfordshire primary school. It shows how meaningful mathematics can be made accessible to young children and, importantly, how fundamental issues of variant and invariant properties  might be developed. An important component of this understanding is the position to term relationship – the relationship (or rule) between the position, n, of a number in a sequence and the number itself. In short, it is our view that young children, when given appropriate opportunities, can operate at levels substantially higher than the curriculum would indicate was likely.”

The teacher in this case made an animal, a dog, using linking cubes. The general shape was  expanded upon to make two larger animals in a ‘family’ of three dogs.

“We discussed the dogs we had made. My questions and prompts were intended to alert them to an awareness of those elements of the dogs that remained constant (invariant) and those that changed. In respect of those elements that changed the intention was to encourage their understanding as to the systematic, and therefore predictable, nature of that change.”

The key to the children’s understanding seems to be labelling each of the parts of the dog, head, legs, shoulders, body and bottom. Once they could apply these labels to each of the three dogs, they could see how the animal was made up. They then used this knowledge to predict the make up of the fourth dog.

After this, they applied their knowledge to their own animals – working out the 4th and 10th members of the family. Some did this in tables, some did this in sentences, but they all could do it regardless of their mathematical abilities. Some were making generalised statements linking the term in the sequence to the body parts. All good stuff and remarkable when you consider that these children are in Year 2…


  • Andrews, P., Sayers, J. (2003) ‘Algebraic Infants’ Mathematics Teaching, Vol. 182, pp. 18-22

The article gives a history of the mathematics landscape in the UK since 1837. Algebra has been part of this throughout.

We see algebra as a key tool to help solve problems now, but historically “problem solving was seen as a specialized skill, only for mathematicians in opening up new fields.”

Key points:

  • “A problem solver needs a rich, connected understanding of mathematics and the abilty to see patterns of similarity and association, as well as the skills to carry out the planned attack, and to check that the results make sense in the context of the problem.”
  • “A Royal Commision, reporting on the state of mathematics teaching in nine leading Public (i.e., private) Schools in 1837, noted that the typical two weekly hours of mathematics consisted of Arithmetic, a little manipulative Algebra, and “Euclid“, learned by rote.”


  • Burkhardt, H., Bell, A. (2007) ‘Problem solving in the United Kingdom’ ZDM, Vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 395-403

Key points:

  • “Early algebraic thinking in a primary context is not about introducing formal algebraic concepts into the classroom but involves reconsidering how we think about arithmetic.”
  • “arithmetic thinking focuses on product (a focus on arithmetic as a computational tool) and algebraic thinking focuses on process (a focus on the structure of arithmetic) (Malara & Navarra, 2003)”
  • “The aim was to assist 5 year-olds to come to an understanding of the structure of equations, and in particular the use of the equal sign.”
  • “When asked to find the unknown for 7 + 8 = ? + 9, many students express this as 7 + 8 = 15 + 9 = 24.”
  • “Three add 2 is different from 4 add 2. There is a different number on each side. Three add 2 is not equal to 4 add 2. It is different from 4 add 2″. Arithmetic thinking is required when computing the value of the two expressions. Algebraic thinking is required when placing the appropriate language between the expressions. Equals is only applicable if the two expressions are equivalent, that is, have the same value.”
  • “It is interesting that both Brianna and Ethan spontaneously introduced symbols as short hand for the object: p for pears and b for bananas or an iconic picture of each. In the secondary context this is commonly referred to ‘fruit salad’ algebra where the letter stands for an object instead of variable, and is thinking that we want to discourage. For example, a common misconception in the secondary context is that 3a + 3b stands for 3 apples and 3 bananas instead of a and b standing for any number. In the early years it is important to make the distinction between how we verbally describe number problems and how we represent these problems with symbols. While we say, “Three cars and five trucks,” the convention is to represent this as 3 and 5. Number sentences are made up of numbers.”


  • Malara, N., Navarra, G. (2003) ‘ArAl Project: Arithmetic pathways towards favouring pre-algebraic thinking.’ Bologna, Italy: Pitagora Editrice.
  • Warren, E., Mollinson, A., Oestrich, K. (2009) ‘Equivalence and Equations in Early Years Classrooms.’ Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, Vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 10-12

The majority of the next few posts are going to be based on my findings from a variety of reading.

Part of the MaST course is to produce a couple of assignments, based on personal research, designed to meet the aims and objectives of the programme, reflecting school based activities, readings, synthesis of theory and practice, analysis of teaching and learning in mathematics and personal and collegiate professional development.

Assignment 1:

Select an area of mathematics or an issue in mathematics teaching that they have identified as an area for development and write a report of a mathematical enquiry (equivalent to 4500 words) that you have undertaken that critically explores content, concepts and relationships in the chosen area.

My chosen area is based around algebra and how children use it to solve problems.

This reading discusses how an average student can benefit from a structured and ordered approach to the teaching of fractions. It could probably be applied to any mathematics topic.

The approach taken was one of understanding the needs of the child first and having an in depth idea of where her weaknesses were. There was a strong focus on the language of fractions – this relates to some of the findings I wrote about yesterday. Fractions are a relative part of maths and their outcome depends entirely on whatever the whole is.

However, we initially observed Audrey having problems in comparing the equivalent fractions 1/3 and 2/6. We therefore used the fraction-lift to clarify equivalent fractions, by making them fractions living at the same floor of the fraction-building and by introducing the metaphor of “roommates” for fractions at the same position on the number line. We now observed how Audrey used the strategy of doubling both the numerator and the denominator to generate equivalent fractions, for example by replacing 2/3 by 4/6 to compare the latter fraction with 5/6.

This gives Audrey a hook to hang her ideas on, something concrete that she can build her learning on. I’m convinced that children need to have the basics of any topic before moving on. I also think that the current approach we have to teaching in this country, based on the current Mathematics Framework, is far too fleeting and jumpy. As practitioners, I feel we need to consider the needs of our children – group parts of topics together so that they have more time to practise and consolidate their learning.

Link (the full article): Ronald Keijzer and Jan Terwel: Audrey’s Acquisition Of Fractions: A Case Study Into The Learning Of Formal Mathematics.

Below are the general responses to the questions posed – I recap the questions and the views are generalised notes from talking to a range of teachers from nursery, through Key Stage 1 and 2. I provide the detailed breakdown of two colleagues from Years 3 and 4.

Throughout these you can see that fractions is a huge, varied and tricky concept to think about, teach and learn. I have found that, throughout my teaching career, children have always found fractions hard, although there are a core of children who grasp it quickly, these are the exception rather than the rule.

It is clear that a hands-on, physical approach is needed at the beginning of fractions work – indeed practical maths was a key talking point of all the teachers throughout the Primary phase. But also, I feel that language is a huge barrier to children’s learning. The language of fractions is often misused throughout life and if they don’t have a solid understanding in the first place, their will only serve to cloud the issue further. Another difficult aspect is the link with division – children who don’t know their multiplication and division facts can’t begin to develop their ideas of fractions

So, how can we bring all these parts together to make up one cohesive whole?!

I think it’s a case of reviewing the way it is taught throughout the Primary Phase. Children have to encounter teachers who are confident in approaching fractions and the subject needs to be taught consistently, removing areas of conflict and making sure that each part of their learning isn’t conflicting with another area. If it is to be taught alone, then it needs to be done until that child grasps that particular stage of learning. My belief however, is that is must feature in each part of mathematics – there can always be a question relating to fractions in whatever is taught. This may help to break some of the barriers to learning that exist – I currently feel that children are very negative towards them.

One key to learning is children’s difficulty with fraction language. Maybe teachers are trying to make too many jumps at the same time, moving too quickly. Maybe this is down to pressures from the curriculum. It is often better to avoid comparisons. For instance, when focussing on halves, it would be better to focus on and describe objects or models that are either halves or not halves, rather than giving objects other labels (much in the same way that children find it easier to learn that bricks are heavy and feathers are not heavy rather than comparing them as heavy and light. Floating and sinking is another example, it is easier to get children to understand things that float and things that don’t float BEFORE investigating things that sink – it’s too confusing).

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I tried this with my current Year 6 group of 24 children to disappointing results. The children break the stick of 18 Multilink cubes, describe what they have done and put something on the sheet of paper that will show what their actions to the rest of the group.

They were sat in two circles of 12 each with a large sheet of flip chart paper in the middle, three pens to record their work and a stick of 18 multilink cubes. I chose 18 for its number of factors: 1, 2, 3, 6, 9 and 18. This gives many possibilities for different sums being created. 12 is also a good number (with factors of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12), as demonstrated in the taught session. Of course outcomes could be expressed as aspects of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, proportions, ratio and percentages (there may be others, arrays could be used for example too).

I wanted them to keep discussion to a minimum and they worked silently for the most part. I had to keep reminding them to be mathematical as the activity progressed, but that was all I said. I didn’t say that anything they had written was right or wrong, remaining neutral and fairly detached throughout. I also made a point of not mentioning any potential things they could record and stated that if the stick had been around the circle once to carry on – especially after seeing the responses… this was in the hope that they might actually use some mathematical ways of recording!

One group in particular, took this as an opportunity to create a silly theme. Their recordings were written sentences of what they had done, such as, “I dropped it on the ground and 9 fell off. 9/18 = half ½” or “I dropped it and 14 came off” and even “I headbutted it and 13 came off.” Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly happy with that group as their work showed little thought or care for the maths they were doing nor did they relate this task to the fractions work we had done previously.

The other group’s responses were more considered. Although the first four responses were variations of the sum 18-5=13: “-13 = 5 left” and “5=13left” being two of their recordings. The rest of their responses try to take the form of ratio statements, which is a great piece of thinking from them – although they don’t quite get it right as they write “6:18 [which is followed by] Took off 6 cubes which makes 12 cubes” or “8:18”.

In all, this tells me that my class need a little more guidance and structure when it comes to tasks. Although I had a feeling that this may not be a useful activity with these children, having taught them for a year and a half now and knowing how they can be, I didn’t expect the outcome to be this far removed from my expectations. I suppose it shows that not all good activities work with all classes.

Yesterday, I detailed how I was planning to use Cuisenaire Rods with half of my Year 6s to investigate and consolidate their knowledge of fractions.

That rarest of things, a full Cuisenaire Set!

That rarest of things, a full Cuisenaire Set!

What I love about the photo above is that despite the general age of the sets we had in school, the rods looked like new… also, the lovely glimpse of working out on the whiteboard in the top corner… (click to enlarge)

My aims for working with the Cuisenaire Rods were:

  • to allow them some hands on work with little recording needed;
  • to give them lots of thinking time – time to play with the ideas behind the rods and questions;
  • to explore fractions in a different way – I doubt they will have used this equipment before (it always surprises me how, in this computer filled age, the simplest thing like a wooden block can fascinate children in the ways they do);
  • to have some interesting discussions about their mathematical thinking. I want to hear their reasoning throughout this task.

My class relished working with these. I gave them a brief introduction to the rods – none of them recalled  using them before – and a quick run down of the task (shown in full at the bottom of the full post, click read the rest of this entry to display it), to investigate relationships between the rods when given a statement about them. I emphasised that it was OK not to give an answer as a definite decimal number, but they could leave it as a fraction, or even give their answer as a colour in certain cases. Nevertheless, a few children asked for calculators and I allowed this as I didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm for finding an answer!

Exploring the rods.

Exploring the rods.

They had around half an hour to explore the task and the rods, during which I took the photos you see dotted around this post and kept a careful ear open for the language and discussions the children were having. They had whiteboards to make jottings on and were told that I wouldn’t be marking them but I wanted them to explain to me how they knew things.

The majority of the 12 were sensibly exploring the relationships and questions associated with the rods. A couple were unsure about how to approach the task – in particular the questions that didn’t have an easily definable answer. One child found it hard to see that with each question the rules were reset. For example, question 1 states that red is equal to one, and in question 2 that association is broken as brown is equal to 10, equivalent to 4 red rods, making red equal two and a half. This child is one who is particularly talented at number work and is adept at working mentally. I expected him to really enjoy and take to this task with minimal effort but it didn’t click with him at all. He wanted to join the rest of the class in their task claiming that he, “didn’t get fractions”. I think his issue was down to a different structure to this lesson than normal and the safety net of a right or wrong answer not being there – he loves being right, and struggles to cope with being wrong.

As far as collaborative work went, the children mostly worked well together, discussing the implications of the criteria set down in the rules and finding relationships within the rods that they could use to guide them to the answer. Some of the questions I have likened to solving a Sudoku puzzle in that you only have a finite knowledge of the whole set of 10 coloured rods and you need to slot the values of the rest in carefully around that knowledge.

Working out Question 4.

Working out Question 4.

Solving Question 4.

Solving Question 4.

One such example of this is question4: “If orange subtract pink is thirty, what is: a) orange plus red? b) orange plus yellow? c) half of orange?”. Above is one child’s working out for this question – they insisted on neatening it up for the second photo… From this, they have worked out:

  • Orange subtract pink is dark green;
  • Therefore, dark green is worth 30;
  • 3 red rods have the same value as dark green (30);
  • 1 red rod is worth 10 (30 ÷ 3);
  • 5 red rods are the same as orange, so orange is worth 50 (5 x 10);
  • Orange plus red is 60 (top picture);
  • Yellow is worth 25 (half of orange, so 50 ÷ 2);
  • Orange plus yellow is worth 75;
  • Brown plus red = orange;
  • Dark blue plus white = orange.

Quite a lot of maths for such a short question – the last two not having been asked for, but they wanted to find equivalent lengths.

The great thing is, the quality of the maths here was good. It showed their ability to think in a logical way and discuss their thinking well. The discussions spread further than their pairs, the two tables became one mass talking point in the class, trying to explain to each other how they had worked out their different results. Another positive is that, generally, they agreed on a solution – no matter how they each worked it out.

Question 5: If yellow is four, what are the other rods?

Question 5: If yellow is four, what are the other rods?

In conclusion then, this has been a worthwhile experiment. It has given the children a new experience, it has given a new lease of life to dusty Cuisenaire Rods, it has allowed the children to stretch their mathematical thinking and developed their explanation skills. In all, something that ticks many boxes in quite a simple way.

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